Radiation therapy neglected in medical training: study

Almost half of all cancer patients would benefit from radiation therapy but medical students receive precious little training about it, a new study suggests.

All medical schools in Australia and New Zealand were surveyed for the research, which was published in the latest issue of the Journal of Medical Imaging and Radiation Oncology. Of those that responded, most dedicated less than 15% of their total medical course to oncology, and half did not offer formal radiation oncology teaching to all students.

"Radiation therapy has a critical role in either curing or improving quality of life for cancer patients," study co-author Sandra Turner said.

"Yet for decades education in this modern and effective treatment has been drastically under-represented in Australian and New Zealand medical programmes."Supporting research suggested junior doctors felt their training left them ill-prepared to fully inform cancer patients, Associate Prof Turner said.

"The time dedicated to radiation oncology teaching was often less than five days in a medical course lasting four to five years," she said.

"There is an urgent need for better education about radiation therapy among the medical profession."

Dunedin consultant radiation oncologist John North, who is also senior lecturer at the Dunedin School of Medicine, agreed there was little input from radiation oncology at undergraduate level.

"That has always been the case, even a long time ago when I went to medical school, when we would get about a half day," he said.

"There is a little bit more exposure these days through general surgery, but in terms of specialist input there isn’t a hell of a lot."

There were many other competing interests at undergraduate level and only so much time, Dr North said.

"There should be an awareness, at least, for students that the treatment exists and is a big part of it, and I do think we try to emphasise that."

The study said cancer was a vast and growing burden on the health budget, and more needed to be done to train medical students.

"Graduate doctors are consistently demonstrating poor oncology knowledge and skills," it said.

"The majority of faculties indicated they will be changing curriculum in the next five years, but only 20% will be assessing radiation oncology content.

"This presents a critical window in which to highlight the deficiency in radiation oncology education and its impact on patient care."

mike.houlahan@odt.co.nz

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