By Crystal Seldon, MD; Awad Ahmed, MD; Anna M. Laucis, MD, MPhil; and Cristiane Takita, MD, MBA
Gender inequality is an ongoing problem among United States (U.S.) medical professionals.1-2 While there have been gains in diversifying the field of medicine, such as the number of women surpassing the number of men matriculating into U.S. medical schools,3 women continue to remain in the minority among faculty of academic institutions.4 Academic oncology is no exception.5 Women make up the minority of all faculty in the fields of medical oncology, radiation oncology (RO) and surgical oncology at U.S. academic institutions.6 This extends to leadership positions, specifically program director and department chair positions. In RO alone, women constitute 30.7% of the academic workforce and only 17.4% of the leadership roles.6 Women also make up the minority of positions on governing boards, such as the Board of Directors, as well as leadership positions for the national professional societies of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) and the American Society for Radiation Oncology.7 There is some progress in this arena, as the current ASCO President is Lori J. Pierce, MD, FASCO, FASTRO, a female radiation oncologist and vice provost at the University of Michigan. And ASTRO currently has three women in Board leadership roles: ASTRO President Laura Dawson, MD, FASTRO, President-elect Geraldine Jacobson, MD, MPH, MBA, FASTRO, and Secretary/Treasurer Neha Vapiwala, MD.
Over the years, we have seen more women enter the field of medicine in the U.S., now representing a narrow majority of matriculating medical students, 50.5% as of 2019.8 However, as more women join the field of medicine, the number of female RO residents appears to have plateaued at 30.2% as of 2019.9 This plateau is also seen in leadership roles in RO residency programs. In 2012, the percentage of female program directors and department chairs was 24% and 9% respectively10 as compared to 23.8% and 11.7% in 2020.6 Studies have shown that female trainees are more likely to practice in programs with women in leadership positions.11-13 The lack of gender equity in leadership positions also likely contributes to the low number of female trainees who matriculate into the field each year, creating a self-perpetuating cycle with a limited supply in the workforce to become leaders.
To address the lack of gender equity in radiation oncology, barriers to equality must be addressed. These barriers include but are not limited to gender specific expectations, barriers to mentorship, disparities in research funding and biases in tenure and academic tracks.14 The lack of predefined finite time limits to leadership positions in academic radiation oncology may contribute to the lack of inclusion in the U.S. academic RO community. Policies introducing term limits for leadership positions in academic medicine have been proposed as a potential solution.15 Work by Odie et al. has showed that gender disparities among chairs exist and are widespread, even in fields where women make up the majority of the workforce, such as obstetrics and gynecology.16 This suggests that the pipeline may not be the heart of the matter. The current disparities seen in leadership, both gender and racial, represent a relic of the past and are unlikely to change without motivational policy; social and institutional guidelines will likely be needed to create gender parity in these leadership roles.
Within recent years, movements geared toward promoting gender equity, such as the #MeTooSTEM, #WomeninMedicine and #HeforShe online platforms, have identified the need for addressing this issue, especially in academia. With more women entering into the field of medicine, it is important to close the gap between men and women faculty members, especially those in leadership positions. Observing other women in leadership roles can inspire and motivate a bright message to students and the public that the field of RO is not only diverse but inclusive as well. An honest assessment of these barriers will be integral as the specialty seeks to attract future radiation oncologists and create a diverse workforce, such that the ideas and opinions representing those from diverse gender, racial and socioeconomic backgrounds can be better represented to ultimately help guide and inform the very best oncologic care for our patients.
Join us in the Gender Equity Community on the ROhub to continue the discussion. What are your suggestions to improve gender equity in radiation oncology?
Crystal Seldon, MD, is a PGY-3 radiation oncology resident at the University of Miami/Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center.
Awad Ahmed, MD, is a radiation oncologist practicing at Multicare Tacoma Washington and ASTRO CHEDI member.
Anna M. Laucis, MD, MPhil, is a chief resident physician in radiation oncology at the University of Michigan and an ASTRO CHEDI member.
Cristiane Takita, MD, MBA, is a professor and residency program director at the University of Miami/Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center and ASTRO CHEDI member.
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By Casey Chollet, MD, Government Relations Committee Chair
2020. By any standard, it was a year to remember...and forget. The COVID-19 pandemic took hold over almost everyone’s energy and focus, sidelining so many routine things we previously took for granted. While the public health emergency rightly became the primary focus of our medical community, the radiation oncology field continued to face direct challenges and looming burdens on the congressional horizon. Be it the threat of a flawed RO Model, payment cuts in the 2021 Medicare Physician Fee Schedule (MPFS) or the progressive burdens of prior authorization, the ASTRO Advocacy team continued to fight for relief throughout the year.
Ultimately, 2020 closed with many victories for our community. The RO Model was delayed until at least January 2022, saving participants approximately $45 million in 2021. Payment cuts in the 2021 MPFS were significantly reduced, protecting radiation oncology from another $100 million in losses in 2021. And prior authorization reform legislation received the support of more than 280 bipartisan co-sponsors in the House, as well as a companion bill introduced in the Senate. On top of these radiation oncology victories, COVID-19 support was secured in the form of continued funding for the Provider Relief Fund that helped offset revenue declines triggered by the reduction of in-person care visits and cancer screenings.
These victories were possible only because of close collaboration between ASTRO Advocacy and our members, and strengthening this collaboration is critical to making 2021 even more successful for radiation oncology. Whether it be through participating in Advocacy Day or email advocacy campaigns, increased engagement by our membership is critical to success.
For instance, ASTRO staff lobbyists and Najeeb Mohideen, MD, FASTRO, teamed up to keep Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL), Dr. Mohideen’s congressman, informed about RO Model concerns. In response, Rep. Krishnamoorthi joined his colleagues in writing the HHS Secretary at the time, Alex Azar, about the need for reforms.
In 2020, ASTRO members sent over 3,200 messages to their representatives and senators advocating for our specialty: that’s almost nine messages a day! Rising to the challenge of the COVID era, 69 members participated in a virtual Advocacy Day on the Hill, attending over 90 meetings. But despite these impressive efforts, our specialty must do more to achieve our long-term policy goals. If we were able to make such a big impact in 2020 with a relatively small level of member participation, just think of the positive changes we can bring about by making our unified voice that much louder. Meaningful prior authorization reform, a viable value-based payment opportunity and sustained investment into cancer research are all possible, but they rely on your action.
Engaging your representatives and senators on these issues is easier than ever, and I encourage you to take advantage of every opportunity to support our policy goals. Write letters, send emails and engage leaders on social media. And if COVID-19 trends continue to improve in your community, please consider inviting them to visit your treatment facilities.
So, keep an eye out for those action alerts and ASTROgram stories, and be sure to check astro.org/advocate regularly. Every effort you make is another step toward improvements for our patients and our community.
By Doriann Geller, ASTRO Communications
ASTRO’s APEx – Accreditation Program for Excellence® counts nearly 200 radiation oncology practices among those having earned the distinguished APEx badge since the program's inception in 2016. APEx recently granted its first reaccreditation in December 2020 to Lutheran Medical Center, located at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in Wheat Ridge, Colorado. Lutheran Medical earned the distinction of being the first facility to become reaccredited after their first four-year cycle. Tyler Kemmis, MD, medical director of radiation oncology at Lutheran Medical, took time out of his day to talk about “Why APEx.”
“I know we were first in Colorado, only maybe sixth in the country for initial accreditation,” he said glowingly on a recent afternoon. “So, I guess it’s pretty neat that we’re first for reaccreditation.”
Lutheran Medical’s mottos include “Excellence: setting and surpassing high standards.” APEx accreditation, which demonstrates safe, high-quality care, validated their commitment to this value, Dr. Kemmis said. The accreditation process, which focuses on the entire radiation oncology team, allowed them to review and modify policies and procedures and to improve documentation. “I think what accreditation does, specifically ASTRO’s APEx, is it forces you to do a self-audit. It helped us modify some of our policies and procedures, update them, define them ― easily identifiable areas we were able to benefit.”
Dr. Kemmis mentioned that the team identified some deficiencies during the Self-Assessment, which is designed for success. “We did not realize some deficiencies until we were sitting down and going through [the Self-Assessment],” he said. “We improved on them, even though they were potentially going to be disclosed at the site visit.” If they were called out, the Lutheran Medical team was prepared with a proactive response. “We could say, ‘Yes, we noticed that, and we've done this to improve it.’”
Lutheran Medical Center’s website describes their facility as a place where “Our patients and families are the center of every thought, communication and action that takes place in this healing space.” The APEx accreditation program evaluates the standard of care that addresses communication, not only among staff but specifically with patients. “Here at Lutheran, we really make sure that we, as radiation oncologists, are there for the entire spectrum of care, and communication is really central to that.”
The APEx accreditation process, while achievable, is known to be rigorous. Asked if that is a fair assessment, Dr. Kemmis concurred. “Yes, I think it’s fair. I won’t lie. It is no walk in the park by any means. Of course, when you go through that much work, there is a greater sense of accomplishment when you get there. Whether it’s an initial accreditation or specifically reaccreditation, the majority of the work is done on the front end and leading up to the site interview. It involves a lot of people putting a lot of work into it, [which] makes it more fulfilling when you do receive your accreditation or reaccreditation,” Dr. Kemmis observed.
“There were additional things that we never thought of, even during the review, [that] forced us to think critically. So, at that point in time you say, ‘Yes this maybe is something that we need to work on.’ Each part of the reaccreditation you can use as a learning experience,” he remarked.
Among the changes Lutheran Medical implemented as a result of the accreditation process was improvement in new staff onboarding. The radiation oncology department enjoys low staff turnover, a point of pride. However, the surveyor noticed that documentation of onboarding processes needed some attention. “We're fortunate that we really don't have a lot of staff turnover, and we didn't really have the opportunity to review some of our training processes and procedures for onboarding new staff,” Dr. Kemmis said. As a result, they have revamped some of those policies and procedures.
The four-year accreditation cycle provides generous time for facilities to continue to improve. During the first four-year cycle, Lutheran Medical used ASTRO accreditation as a framework for future improvements in developing new documentation for their system of radiation oncology departments, expanding the benefits of accreditation system-wide.
Dr. Kemmis stated that Lutheran Medical’s radiation oncology department considered other accrediting bodies, but they chose APEx. “I think it was the fact that, as a radiation oncologist, I felt more aligned with ASTRO. And when it was offered as a new accreditation, I think there was that allure that this was a new accreditation, that [it] would be exciting to be involved with.” The four-year reaccreditation, as opposed to three, was also a factor, he said. “It was all those factors put together.”
Would Dr. Kemmis recommend APEx accreditation to his radiation oncology colleagues? “Yes absolutely,” he responded. “I haven't gone through any accreditation other than ASTRO, but I've had a good experience with it so far, so I would.”
If you would like information on how your facility can become accredited by APEx, we invite you to contact an ASTRO team member at APExSupport@astro.org to schedule an online discussion. By this time next year, your facility could join Lutheran Medical in the family of APEx accredited facilities.