BENNINGTON — Southwestern Vermont Regional Cancer Center is working to recruit a full-time cancer specialist to succeed Dr. Charlene Ives, who announced she’s leaving the practice next month after nearly 20 years as a medical oncologist.
But that’s not as easy as it sounds.
The job market for medical oncologists — the medical specialty for doctors who diagnose and treat patients with chemotherapy — is very tight at present, and is particularly strained in the Northeast, according to Dr. Trey Dobson, chief medical officer for Southwestern Vermont Health Care.
That said, interviews are scheduled with two potential applicants next month, Dobson said. He is confident that the hospital will fill the opening.
In the meantime, a pair of short-term appointments — Dr. Jeevan Sekhar and nurse practitioner Dawn Murphy — will be working in the cancer center, with Sekhar present every other week and Murphy on location three out of four weeks, Dobson said. They’ll fill in after Ives moves on to pursue medicine outside of oncology, with her last day on Dec. 22.
“We anticipate hiring a full-time oncologist, but it will be several months” until one is on board, Dobson said. Sekhar, Murphy and the hospital’s partnership with Dartmouth-Hitchcock will help “piece together what will be a challenging few months,” he said.
“I have great confidence in their professional abilities and value their personal integrity,” Ives said of Sekhar and Murphy in a letter to patients announcing her decision.
In her letter to patients, Ives said it was “not an easy decision” to move on after nearly 20 years, and that she was “incredibly grateful for the privilege of serving the community and working with such wonderful staff.”
“Please know that this was not an easy decision for me and that I sincerely appreciate the trust and confidence you placed in me,” Ives said in the letter. “My time here has been extraordinarily rewarding.”
Finding a successor to Ives is an important moment for SVMC. The medical oncology program provides cancer care to between 6,500 and 7,500 patients per year, while its radiation oncology program, led by Dr. Matthew Vernon, serves about 3,500 patients annually, hospital spokesman Ray Smith said. The two disciplines often work together, Dobson added.
The program serves a three-state area and has been accredited by the American College of Surgeons Commission on Cancer, which only bestows that honor to the top 25 percent of cancer centers nationwide. Additionally, the cancer treatment program works “synergistically” with other specialties, such as gastroenterology and pulmonary medicine, Dobson said.
“We all recognize the importance of having a strong cancer center with a strong oncologist and the difficulty of recruiting,” Dobson said. “At the same time, we’re optimistic what we offer here will be attractive to oncologists looking to practice in the great state of Vermont … with a highly qualified staff and accredited cancer center.”
A national search firm has been assisting the effort, Dobson said.
Ives said she would explore opportunities outside cancer medicine. She also said the hospital and Dartmouth-Hitchcock Putnam Physicians, the medical group affiliated with SVMC, “continue the effort to recruit additional oncologists to our health system and build upon the remarkable work that we have accomplished in our cancer center.”
SVMC is not the only hospital facing a cancer specialist shortage.
In the June 2021 issue of the medical journal Oncology, Dr. Julie Vose, of the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, said a shortage of between 2,500 and 4,000 hematologists and oncologists was predicted 14 years ago in a study by the American Society of Clinical Oncology.
That 2007 study, Vose said, cited a diminished number of “pipeline” residents in oncology (along with internal medicine and other fields) and an expected 48 percent increase in demand for cancer specialists — all at the same time many specialists were nearing retirement age.
Vose also wrote that, according to a 2021 American Society of Clinical Oncology study, there are 13,146 doctors working in 1,638 oncology practices in the U.S. Of those doctors, 21.1 percent are reaching retirement age, while just 14.5 percent are ages 40 and under.
“Only 11.2 percent of oncologists practice in areas defined as rural,” Vose said.
Dobson said the supply and demand in medical fields “waxes and wanes” over time. Many oncologists have chosen to practice in larger groups in urban areas, which allows for balancing of workload, he said. But there’s also renewed interest in rural medicine that works to SVMC’s benefit, he said.
In addition to growing the number of specialists, Vose said, the field needs to make changes to allow for more oncologist-led teams, supported by advanced practice providers, oncology nurses, oncology pharmacists and other support personnel” to make the job more workable and prevent burnout.