A nationwide dearth of the specialists known as classical hematologists (CHs), who are trained to treat noncancerous bleeding disorders, has left many patients stranded and health care systems struggling to cope.
Over decades, the shrinking pool of CHs — who are compensated far less than hematologist-oncologists — has put patients at risk without access to adequate and timely care. To alleviate this crisis, individual doctors and national organizations are taking action and making more resources available to CHs and their patients.
The root cause of the CH shortage can be traced to a dramatic reduction in the number of physicians trained in this field, as Leonard Valentino, MD, President of the National Bleeding Disorders Foundation in New York, explained in an interview.
“There is a vicious cycle where there’s not enough classical hematologists to be program directors, and therefore trainees are often steered to fellowships in oncology,” said Dr. Valentino.
According to data published in JAMA, in 1995 there were 74 classical hematology programs in the United States; by 2018, there were only 2, During this same time period, the number of combined hematology/oncology training programs (HOPs) nearly doubled, from 75 to 146. However, it is estimated that less than 5% of graduates of adult HOPs pursued a career in classical hematology, as reported in Blood Advances. This low percentage can be attributed, at least in part, to the emphasis that most HOPs place on oncology.
Dr. Valentino noted that financial pressures are also diverting medical students from becoming CHs, adding that a hematologist-oncologist can make three times the annual salary of a CH.
Furthermore, when CHs treat bleeding and clotting disorders, they often need to meet with a patient for a 60- to 90-minute initial consultation, then they go on to provide a lifetime of labor-intensive care.
“This work is neither verticalized [that is, supported by radiologists, surgeons, and a cadre of nurses], nor is it billable per hour on a scale comparable to what oncologists can charge,” Dr. Valentino explained.
The survey published in Blood Advances illustrates the consequences of such a disparity in income potential: 34% of hematology/oncology fellows surveyed were likely to enter solid tumor oncology, while 20% and 4.6% would proceed to malignant hematology and CH, respectively.
Toll on patients
Primary care doctors treat some common blood disorders, but they almost always refer more difficult or complicated cases to a shrinking population of CHs.
“For many Americans, it is getting more difficult to find providers who subspecialize in hemostasis and thrombosis disorders. Patients can expect prolonged waiting times to get evaluated after a referral” said Mukul Singal, MD, of the Indiana Hemophilia and Thrombosis Center in Indianapolis.
Dr. Singal said the shortage is so acute that “at many institutions, malignant hematologists or oncologists are having to staff in-patient hematology consult services and see outpatient classical hematology patients. General hematologist/oncologists or medical oncologists are often not as comfortable or experienced with dealing with some of the complex CH conditions.”
A working care model, without enough doctors
In 1975, responding to patient advocacy groups, the federal government began funding hemophilia treatment centers (HTCs). Such centers offer a comprehensive care model that gives patients access to practitioners and administrative staff with the expertise to help them stay as healthy as possible. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people with hemophilia who used an HTC were 40% less likely to die of a hemophilia-related complication and 40% less likely to be hospitalized for bleeding complications, compared to those who did not receive such specialized care.
“HTCs are effective at keeping patients out of the hospital and engaged in their lives. Between 80% and 95% of hemophilia patients get their care from an HTC and more patients want more services from them,” said Joe Pugliese, president of the Hemophilia Alliance in Lansdale, Pa.
Expanding care to meet patient demand is challenged by the restrictions on doctors’ salaries. All 140 U.S.-based HTCs share a $4.9 million federal grant but, by law, they can’t pay any provider more than $211,000 a year. “These restrictions push many people to industry, leaving too few doctors to meet patient demand,” Mr. Pugliese explained.
The fact that most HTCs are located in or near major cities also presents patients with the challenge of commuting, sometimes across state lines, to see a specialist. However, an uptick in telemedicine has provided one bright spot for many patients, allowing care to be brought to them.
The Hemophilia Alliance is also working on a multifaceted approach to change the rules, so that CHs are offered better compensation. “We have lobbyists in Washington, as well as an advocacy committee and a payer committee working to better support the HTC model,” Mr. Pugliese said.
Beyond the paycheck: Supporting CHs and patients
As market and regulatory restrictions make it difficult to boost the pay of CHs, doctors and nonprofit organizations are collaborating to support young CHs and bring more into the field. The American Society of Hematology has started and fully funded the Hematology Focused Fellowship Training Program (HFFTP). This program pairs comprehensive classical hematology training with education in transfusion medicine, sickle cell disease, hemostasis/thrombosis, systems-based hematology, health equity research, and global health. According to the program’s website, HFFTP’s goal is to add 50 new academic hematologists nationwide by 2030, in an effort to “improve the lives of patients with blood and bone marrow disorders.”
Additionally, classic hematologists are aiming to attract younger physicians and trainees to their field by introducing them to the various rewarding aspects of dealing with patients with inherited, chronic blood diseases. Programs like the Partners Physicians Academy (PPA), a 5-day training course that is specifically designed to encourage and retain young hematology students as classical hematologists, are essential to this effort.
“Along with preparing physicians to work in an HTC, programs like the Hematology Focused Fellowship Training Program and the Partners Physicians Academy are so important because they might convince young doctors to stick with non–oncology-based hematology careers, through the right mix of knowing about exciting research like gene therapy, financial and mentorship support, and a desire to meet unmet medical need,” explained Dr. Valentino.
The next PPA is taking place this week in Indianapolis.
Dr. Singal, Dr. Valentino, and Mr. Pugliese had no financial disclosures to report.
This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.
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Publish date : 2023-09-20 16:43:15
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