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Patients Say Experience Trumps Convenience When Choosing A Cancer Surgeon

When choosing a cancer surgeon, patients are more likely to prefer surgeons with specialized training and lots of experience far more than those who practice in a convenient location or were recommended by a friend, according to results of a new survey reported in the November issue of the Annals of Surgical Oncology.

In their survey of 214 patients who visited a surgical clinic at The Johns Hopkins Hospital, surgical oncology director Timothy Pawlik, M.D., Ph.D., M.P.H., and his colleagues found that 68.1 percent of patients surveyed ideally wanted their surgeon to have at least six years of experience, and 75.3 percent wanted their surgeon to have performed their particular procedure at least 50 times.

Pawlik, a professor of surgery at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and member of the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center, says the study shows that patients are becoming savvier about choosing cancer care providers. “Patients know that surgery is a technical endeavor, and it’s like getting your car fixed: You want a mechanic with a lot of experience,” he says. “I think patients are pretty keyed in to looking for an experienced hospital as well.”

The survey questionnaire asked patients to rank 16 factors by order of importance when choosing a cancer surgeon. The Johns Hopkins researchers selected the factors after a search of other studies on patient preferences. The list included physician qualifications, such as years of experience; physician reputation, such as a recommendation from friends or family members, hospital-related factors such as how often a procedure was performed at a hospital, and nonclinical factors, such a facility’s parking availability.

The rankings stayed consistent across a range of patient education levels, types of primary cancer and whether the patient was in the clinic for a second opinion, the researchers found. Physician and hospital experience were always highest ranked, while factors such as parking availability, online reviews of the surgeon and the distance traveled to the clinic ranked among the least important to patients.

Data on an individual physician’s surgery rate and outcomes are difficult to find, Pawlik says, but such information could prove useful to cancer patients. “Our survey would support the notion that patients are seeking more objective data about such things as case numbers and hospital numbers so that they can make more informed decisions in choosing their physicians.”

Other studies have shown an association between better outcomes of cancer surgeries and surgeons who perform a high volume of the procedures.

Researchers who helped conduct the study include Aslam Ejaz, Gaya Spolverato, Neda Amini and Yuhree Kim of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine; and John F. Bridges of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Ejaz was supported in part by the Eleanor B. Pillsbury Foundation for Surgical Research.

This story was originally published by Johns Hopkins Medicine on Nov. 14, 2014.