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VA in Albuquerque loses its only oncologist

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

New Mexico has 62 practicing oncologists, according to data from the American Society of Clinical Oncology.

But at the Raymond G. Murphy Veterans Affairs hospital in Albuquerque? Zero.

Albuquerque VA Chief of Staff Dr. James Goff said the hospital’s only oncologist resigned in December.

“Since the loss of our oncologist, we’ve referred about 173 patients for care in the community,” Goff told the Journal in an interview.

Those community institutions include the University of New Mexico Comprehensive Cancer Center, which has taken on around 120 patients from the VA.

Dr. Cheryl Willman, CEO of the center, said the center’s 18 “very busy” oncologists were each seeing 25 to 30 patients a day before absorbing those from the VA.

But for the patients, Willman said the transition has been a smooth one.

“It just means our doctors are working longer hours and we’re packing clinics,” Willman said in a telephone interview. “We did have the capacity to absorb those VA patients and were happy to do so.”

But she said the center is hoping to do more than fill in while the VA looks for permanent replacements.

Recruiting oncologists is hard in most areas of the country, and Willman said teaming up with the VA to jointly hire physicians may give both institutions an edge above the competition.

“We’re looking at true joint recruitments because I think that would provide the best program and the best integrated care,” Willman said.

The two institutions already work closely together: The VA sends patients in need of radiation therapy or highly specialized cancer surgeries to UNM and medical students see VA patients.

The idea of giving prospective employees the opportunity to gain experience in both settings and being able to offer the higher pay available to UNM employees could help recruitment efforts.

But it’s still difficult to recruit to New Mexico, even to its largest city.

“There are plenty of oncologists in Boston and New York City,” said Dr. Richard Lauer, chief medical officer at the UNM Cancer Center. “It’s when you get outside the major cities, that’s when it becomes a problem.”

UNM has also been sending physicians down to Silver City and Las Cruces due to the dearth of oncologists there.

Dr. Mike Kosty of the American Society of Clinical Oncology agreed there’s a regional disparity in access to oncologists.

Kosty also pointed out that, around the country, the population – and oncologists – are aging.

In New Mexico, 19.9 percent of oncologists are 64 or older. Their median age is 51.

In addition, Kosty said cancer patients are living longer than ever before.

“That’s good from a patient perspective, but it obviously puts strain on the system,” he said.