Feature Articles

The changing face of cancer in Australian medical schools

A multitude of changes are revolutionising the study and practice of oncology worldwide.   Despite the undeniable importance of cancer education, there is currently no consensus amongst Australian medical schools as to what should be taught regarding oncology practice, nor have the best ways of teaching and learning about cancer been fully elucidated in the literature, or in the clinical realm. There is a lack of important cancer knowledge amongst graduating medical students and variation exists amongst individual Australian medical faculties, between states as well as individual universities from the same state. Furthermore, there is very little teaching here in Australia in relation to emerging genomic technologies within oncology, and in particular, the ever-increasing role of personalised and preventative medicine in cancer care today. Ultimately, there is a clear need for an integrated, overarching national oncology curriculum, embracing a patient-centred approach; national evaluation and assessment; supplementary courses; utilisation of self-directed learning and reflective practice activities; and greater emphasis on emerging technologies. With more research focus on this area, in future there may be a larger evidence-base targeted at providing improvements in Australian Oncology education, assisting graduates in gaining adequate understanding and appreciation of cancer-related scenarios and cancer care. More effective teaching and learning facilitation, with better overall Australian training outcomes, will lead to advancement in cancer diagnosis, treatment, and management as well as ensuring more insightful and valuable patient interactions in the future.


A multitude of changes are revolutionising the study and practice of oncology worldwide.  The ways in which oncology and cancer care are incorporated into medical school curricula in Australia is thus of particular interest. Despire the undeniable importance of cancer education, there is currently no consensus amongst Australian medical schools as to what should be taught in regards to oncology practice, nor have the best ways of teaching and learning about cancer and cancer care been fully elucidated in the literature or in the clinical realm [1-4].

In Australia, there is considerable variation in undergraduate and postgraduate teaching of oncology amongst individual medical faculties [8,9] and a lack of important cancer knowledge amongst graduating medical students, between states and between individual universities from the same state [8,9,10]. This inconsistency is compounded by the nature of oncology as a multidisciplinary specialty, with overlap in numerous fields including pathology, surgery, histology, radiology, anatomy, genetics, communication skills, and palliative care [1].

Further, there is very little teaching here in Australia in relation to emerging technologies within oncology and in particular, the ever-increasing role of personalised and preventative medicine in cancer care today. Educators are now presented with the inevitable task of addressing all foundational educational needs in our generation of medical graduates. They must also ensure to incorporate pertinent aspects of such a rapidly progressive field of medicine as it relates, for example, to genetic testing and counselling, the rise of personalised or ‘precision’ medicine, and ongoing development in cancer immunotherapies [11-14].

Variation in oncology education in Australia is compounded by the lack of literature on this subject, which is predominantly qualitative in nature and overall, more difficult to evaluate [30].  Whilst cancer is the number one cause of death in Australia, oncology itself is still not a subscribed part of the medical curriculum, nor is an oncology rotation compulsory in Australian medical schools. There is an ongoing lack of literature regarding oncology-specific teaching and learning methods, as well as a lack of evidence in the effective implementation of compulsory curricula or rotations to engage with foundational and emerging aspects of oncology or palliative care.

The importance of this issue resonates with students, recent graduates, and educators as all medical students will at some point in their career play a role in the management of a cancer patient [5], whether as a resident on an oncology rotation, as a general practitioner at the stage of diagnosis, during long-term follow-up of a cancer survivor [6], as a fully-qualified oncologist, or as a clinical geneticist. Furthermore, with our ageing Australian population, there will be greater numbers of individuals diagnosed with and treated for cancer than ever before as well as an increased number of survivors, making cancer a chronic illness to be managed by a multidisciplinary team [7].


How did we get here?

In 1993, the General Medical Council published a detailed review of medical education [15], which led to a major overhaul of medical school oncology training in the United Kingdom, and worldwide [1,16].  A survey of European universities showed that 95% indicated the need for increased cancer education and there was an overwhelming interest in a common European oncology curriculum [17].

In 1999, and again in 2007, the Ideal Oncology Curriculum (IOC) for Medical Students was released here in Australia [18], produced by the Oncology Education Committee of the Cancer Council Australia and endorsed by the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC). It provides an unparalleled example of the evidence-based recommendations required for medical school cancer education, including prescribed clinical experiences and knowledge attainment, which necessitate a patient-centred approach to training methods. In each section, there is detail of prerequisite knowledge, as well as a list of representative questions that illustrate the ‘required depth of knowledge’ for graduating medical students, with attached example answers and multiple-choice question-answer options.

Focus is on the patient rather than the discipline, with topics ranging from public health and cancer biology, to patient management, diagnosis, communication skills, and clinical experiences [18]. More recently, it has been supplemented by a detailed e-Book entitled “Clinical Oncology for Medical Students”, which may be utilised alongside the recommended experiential learning, and acquisition of technical oncology skills, for a more robust understanding of the prescribed IOC material [19].

Moreover, the World Health Organisation and UICC recommend that cancer education be incorporated into oncology modules within an undergraduate curriculum and that medical students spend a minimum of two weeks in oncology training [4,5]. However, despite the superlative example given by the IOC, there has been minimal uptake in Australia, which may be linked to the current lack of a national curriculum, the dearth of literature on effective educational strategies, or the historical absence of oncology content in Australian medical school curricula. This lack of implementation and an inadequate evidence-base makes the feasibility and effectiveness of oncology rotations or uptake of the IOC guidelines incredibly difficult to ascertain, let alone, achieve.


Oncology teaching and learning methods

Internationally, there has been a push for an overarching pre-clinical oncology curriculum for medical students incorporating medical knowledge, psychosocial aspects, communication skills training, and utilisation of a variety of teaching methods such as interviews, discussion, reflection, and lectures [1,2,7,20].

There is increased emphasis on a patient-centred approach to teaching [11,13] and learning in oncology education [22,23]. This should extend from the use of standardised patients teaching examination skills to medical students, to the involvement of cancer patients in communication skills teaching and portfolio learning [1,24].

Self-directed learning (SDL) is the educational strategy considered most likely to produce medical graduates who are prepared for lifelong learning and who are able to meet the needs of their patients [26,30]. SDL activities include problem-based learning (PBL), discovery learning, task-based learning, experiential and reflective learning, portfolio-based learning, small group or project-based learning, and peer evaluation with learning contracts [26]. Results from numerous studies have indicated a trend towards improved student performance from SDL assessment, as with the follow-up of a cancer patient over an extended period of time [1,21,23-25]. The use of portfolio assessment and learning journals is also championed as a tool of successful oncology training and for lifelong education [25]. An array of methods may thus be employed in undergraduate oncology training whilst utilising the SDL approach [26-27].

The PBL approach, more specifically, as one of the major aspects of SDL, facilitates a deeper learning style [28] and involves an active search for understanding based on a given scenario. This technique is linked to better clinical problem-solving skills in medical students with higher levels of motivation and stimulation found [27] and superior outcomes in students tested [9,29].

Regarding format, some have argued that an independent block style is more effective in presenting an oncology curriculum [20]. This is as opposed to an integrated model of teaching into other system modules and would be relevant within an Australian-based system. In block format, the curriculum may be presented through oncology-specific technology-based lectures, team-based communication, and clinical skill exercises supplemented by lectures paired with relevant clinically-based scenarios and other activities posted online to be worked through independently [20].

Computer-aided learning [1,21,22,30] may itself have a role to play as supplementation to oncology study though technology-based approaches are not necessarily superior to other learning techniques [1]. Here in Australia, a number of medical schools are already utilising the e-Learning Undergraduate Modules for Australian Medical Schools, accessible via The e-Learning Portal, which is provided by The Australasian College of Dermatologists [31]. This is highly applicable on a national level when considering skin cancer rates in Australia [32]. Overseas, an ‘eDerm’ online curriculum [33] provided to 252 medical students in the United States significantly improved the diagnosis and management of pigmented skin lesions by medical students [33].

In regards to communication skills, suboptimal communication can lead to adverse psychological effects in patients. It can compromise a physician’s ability to treat patients, as well as impacting patient satisfaction, medication compliance and overall clinical outcomes [34]. The use of group presentations, small-group communication skills practice [35], and reflective self-awareness exercises have been shown to improve communication skills. This is particularly true with the use of patient-actors in simulated clinical situations as opposed to role-play alone. There is overwhelming proof that communication skills can be taught and should be delivered through experiential learning methods, which are ultimately more effective than instructional modes to address communication skills development in oncology [36].

Moreover, a primary skill that any medical student can bring to an oncology experience, or rotation is their presence and their time. Medical student training in this burgeoning field [11] must facilitate the development of essential communicative abilities: to be able to listen to a cancer patient’s story during their clinical journey, to be able to connect with this experience, and communicate effectively in response to this scenario [18,34-36].


Lessons from abroad

At the University of Wales’ College of Medicine, medical students followed a patient along their cancer journey over a six-month period and were assessed during patient interactions and through a final portfolio. Overall, students found the project rewarding and reported gaining unparalleled insight into the cancer experience [22].

A three-day intensive oncology course has been piloted in Israel, with students feeling more comfortable with cancer-related issues, less afraid of dealing with death, and better able to cope with uncomfortable cancer-related emotional situations as a result [7]. Psychosocial and ethical aspects were presented through student-led presentations and discussions, a psycho-oncology session led by a psychologist, and two presentations by cancer patients describing their personal experiences and offering advice on aspects such as the doctor-patient relationship [7].

In Poland, attempts have been made to improve cancer education through the National Program for Combating Neoplastic Diseases [16]. This was done with a course incorporating computer-learning modules, online tests, portfolio learning, summer school, modules taught by cancer patients, and attachments in oncology and palliative care. Observations highlighted that the introduction of these courses better prepares students for delivering cancer care [16].

Finally, in a novel Brazilian experience, students staffed an oncology clinic, with 77% of students involved in this approach over a ten-year period rating it as the best activity of their course. Findings suggested that attendance at an oncology outpatient clinic can contribute significantly to the cancer education of medical students [24].


Future directions for Australian oncology education

There is a clear need for the following in cancer education:

  1. An integrated, overarching national curriculum, with a patient-centred approach
  2. National evaluation and assessment
  3. Summer schools and supplementary courses
  4. Embracing SDL & PBL, with reflective practice activities
  5. Greater emphasis on emerging technologies


  1. An oncology curriculum, with a patient-centred approach

 A relevant, integrated oncology curriculum as detailed by the IOC [15,18] should be embraced by all Australian medical schools, with the aim of bringing together requirements regarding essential knowledge, skills, and attitudes about cancer and cancer-related care [2,8,9,10,17]. It should be well-rounded and ideally supported by a coordinating body, with an academic basis of professorships [2].

 As detailed by the IOC [18], there is a need for increased emphasis on clinical interaction and greater time spent with patients [1,2,5,21,37]. As suggested [18], medical students need at least five cancer clinical experiences before graduating:

  • Talking with and examining people affected by all stages of cancer;
  • Talking with and examining people affected by all common cancers;
  • Observing all components of multidisciplinary cancer care;
  • Seeing shared decision-making between cancer patients and their doctors; and
  • Talking with and examining dying people [2,15,18].


  1. Assessment

As shown in Australian medical schools, assessment drives performance [2]. Thus, having decided upon a particular patient-centred approach, carrying out formal evaluation of student learning and course content is vital for enhancing training outcomes [18,38], and should inform the prescribed curriculum [2]. In future, this might include the introduction of national assessment, such as a national exit examination [40], with oncology-related scenarios aimed at testing core knowledge levels and ensuring standardisation is maintained across the country [9,39,40].


  1. Supplementary courses 

Regarding adjuncts to a proposed national curriculum and module [20] of oncology teaching, summer schools and extra courses [7,16] may be of great use here in Australia [1]. The Vienna Summer School, for example, receives high levels of praise and acceptance rates from European medical students. These students note that these supplementary courses provide them with a greater understanding of oncology and an appreciation of its’ multidisciplinary character [15]. Summer schools may offer educational activities that fill the gaps of an otherwise disjointed oncology training program, as shown by the example of oncology summer schools in Europe [4].


  1. Self-directed learning, problem-based learning and reflective practice

Learning in medical school is rarely fully autonomous, with students valuing pedagogic support and often relying on teachers as coordinators and facilitators of their learning environment [41]. Students should be encouraged to recognise the importance of evidence-based medicine, how to critically appraise literature, and the need to constantly update one’s knowledge based on high-quality evidence and guidelines [18]. Furthermore, team-based learning through small scenario or discussion groups has a role to play in the application of basic science knowledge to real-world oncology-related scenarios [35]. This could lead to greater engagement with lecture content and its’ application in daily medical practice.

There is increasing necessity for our medical curriculum to foster the development of sound communication skills. Furthermore, providing students at every level of their education with an opportunity for reflective practice, as individuals and in smaller groups, is also a must. This may serve as an important tool in supporting students who emotionally encounter negative experiences as a result of difficult or uncomfortable clinical encounters. Mentoring, as an extension of this pathway, may be of use in allowing reflection following hospital experiences. It may be of use for medical students to attach themselves to ‘mentor’ clinicians on rotation, staff whom they perceive to be effective teachers for coaching purposes, development of reflective practice, and consolidation of learning [42].

Moreover, students learn more effectively by being actively involved in a PBL strategy, as it facilitates epistemic curiosity through activation and elaboration of prior knowledge [22]. Reflection on experience, followed by evaluation, analysis, and appropriate action, may facilitate further learning and appreciation of curriculum content in the Australian context [1,4,18,21,22,23,25]. Portfolio learning [1,22,23] should thus be employed in a set teaching program [16,23], with reflective exercise  and a compulsory portfolio-based experience, or assessment. This would to facilitate reflection and exploration of the patient experience along their cancer trajectory.


  1. Emphasis on emerging technologies

Dramatic advances in genomic technology stand to revolutionise clinical cancer care [13,14]. Personalised (or ‘precision’) medicine is a banner term, describing the use of molecular tools to individualise healthcare through genetic testing, whole genome sequencing, exome, or transcriptome sequencing [13]. While there has been ample research in the area of genetic testing and its’ implications for our future, very little is known about how best to encourage development in understanding of such technologies at the level of medical students or recent graduates.

In the realm of breast cancer in Australia, for example, an individualised cancer care approach is evidenced in the case of genetic testing for BRCA1/2 mutations, which reflect a specific predisposition toward breast and ovarian cancer [43]. About 5% of cases of breast cancer and 10% of ovarian cancer cases, are due to such inherited predisposition [44,45]. With progress towards a more personalised, family-centred model of oncological care in Australia, knowledge of ones’ genetic and genomic information plays a crucial role, from screening and prevention, to individualised surgical treatment, and utilisation of targeted therapies based on a tumours’ molecular signature [46].

In order to fully realise the effective application of personalised medicine into routine Australian cancer care, students and clinicians need a more comprehensive understanding of emerging technologies. In addition, an appreciation of the experiences, and attitudes of cancer patients, and their families is required. Evidence suggests that the majority of cancer patients are willing to undergo genetic and genomic testing during, or following, cancer treatment [11]. More work is needed in this area to provide graduates with a more refined appreciation of how best to communicate genomic concepts to a broad range of patients [11]. Medical graduates must have greater awareness of foundational genetics-based and personalised medicine pathways. This will allow them to alleviate patient misconceptions and ultimately, to empower patients to make more informed cancer care decisions [12-14]. Without this, there may be failure to adequately deliver genetically-guided cancer care, treatment, and management in the future. The issue our educators will now face is how to best integrate this information into a feasible medical student curriculum.



More effective teaching and learning strategies in oncology should be aimed at producing Australian medical graduates with adequate and relevant cancer-related knowledge, skills, and attitudes that best meet the needs of their society [2]. The IOC [18] does an exceptional job of demonstrating the requirements and expected knowledge to be attained through a prescribed oncology curriculum here in Australia.

Australian medical students need a well-rounded understanding of oncology concepts and appropriate examination and communication techniques to facilitate aspects of cancer diagnosis, referral, and management in future clinical practice [20]. There must be focus given to developing an awareness of emerging technologies in the realm of cancer care with emphasis on basic concepts related specifically to genetic testing, genetic counselling, and personalised medicine.

The foundational experiences provided by medical school training serve to shape one’s entire career as a doctor. Those students more engaged in their learning through SDL, PBL and reflective practice strategies [26,27], and who have a greater understanding of key concepts are more likely to achieve superior assessment outcomes [2]. They are also more likely to be involved in successful clinical interactions overall [1].

With greater research focus on this area in future, there may be a larger evidence-base targeted at providing overarching improvements in Australian oncology education. This will assist graduates in gaining an adequate understanding and an appreciation of cancer-related scenarios and cancer care. More effective teaching and learning facilitation with better overall Australian training outcomes will ultimately lead to advancement in cancer diagnosis, treatment, and management outcomes as well as ensuring more insightful and valuable patient interactions in our futures [5,12].


Conflicts of interest

None declared.



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Feature Articles

The role of general practice in cancer care

The incidence of cancer has risen in Australia and globally over the past few decades. Fortunately, advances in medicine have enabled cancer patients to live longer. We now have the means to provide better healthcare and support for this group of ‘survivors’. However, this situation also poses unique challenges to the healthcare system as resources are limited but healthcare professionals are required to do more. In recent years, there has been a call for an expansion of the role of general practitioners (GPs) in cancer care. Such a primary care-based approach allows GPs to pursue their interests in cancer management and enables diversification of healthcare resources. This article will attempt to examine how general practice can be involved in cancer care in Australia.



Cancer is a chronic disease on the global scale. In Australia, cancer accounts for approximately a quarter of all deaths. [1] By the age of 75, one in three males and one in four females will be expected to be diagnosed with cancer. [1] These figures may be attributed to higher population growth and an ageing population. [2] As patients are diagnosed earlier and receive better treatment, more cancer patients transit into survivorship. [3] Consequently, the immediate demands of cancer care extend beyond diagnosis and treatment and towards multi-disciplinary care, which focuses on providing support and improving the quality of life of patients. This article will briefly examine the factors influencing the involvement of primary care physicians in cancer care in Australia and reference initiatives implemented by other countries.

Patterns of cancer care and areas of GP involvement

Cancer management is complex and involves different healthcare providers. According to Norman et al., cancer care patterns may be sequential, parallel or shared. [4] In sequential care, patients are mainly cared for by oncology teams while parallel care requires general practice (GP) management of non-cancer problems. Shared care has the greatest GP involvement and requires joint management of cancer care by GP and oncology teams. GPs in Australia are mostly involved in screening and diagnosis of cancer and, eventually, referral to specialists who take over treatment and patient follow-up. GPs also play a role in managing the side effects of treatment as well as education (including prevention measures) of patients and their families. Depending on the treatment outcome, supportive or palliative care may also be provided by GPs.

In the future, it is expected that GPs will need to accept responsibilities outside their remit. This is due to a limited number of specialists in rural and remote areas and the need to diversify and expand the healthcare workforce. [5] Furthermore, health systems that include strong primary medical care were shown to be more efficient and have better health outcomes. [6] Therefore, there is a gradual move towards shared care models with GPs playing a central role alongside other healthcare providers. In this context, it will be important to understand the factors influencing the involvement of GPs in cancer care and how to maximize their involvement throughout the spectrum of cancer care.

Factors influencing GP involvement in cancer care

Location of GPs

The degree of involvement of GPs may depend on where they are based. [7] Out of necessity, GPs in rural and remote areas could be involved in coordination of cancer care and also some aspects of treatment (e.g. pre-chemotherapy checks) and follow-up of side effects. Conversely, GPs working in urban settings were more likely to refer patients upon diagnosis.

Studies have shown that indigenous Australians and other minority groups living in rural or remote areas have higher cancer mortality rates due to reduced access to healthcare. [8] GPs working in these settings could reduce this inequality through better prevention and diagnosis,  timely  referrals  as  well  as  treatment  of  co-morbidities- areas which are traditionally within the remit of primary care. [9] Although the cancer curriculum in Australian GP training focuses on these areas, it is estimated that GPs only encounter about four new cancer cases each year with cases exhibiting huge variability in cancer types and treatment requirements. [7] Such a scenario necessitates opportunities for GPs to improve their skills and experience through case-based learning and seminars. [7] Online learning modules offered by Cancer Australia are a good starting point but more effort will be required to promote these learning opportunities as GPs may not be aware of such resources. [7,10]

In recent years, the rise of telemedicine has provided an important tool in connecting rural GPs and specialists. This has enabled rural GPs to be more involved in cancer care as they can easily gain access to specialist knowledge. In Queensland, medical oncology services via videoconferencing were trialed and provided to remote and rural communities. [11] Satisfaction levels were high among both patients and rural health workers with such benefits as reduced time and money,  improved  communication between specialists  and  patients and greater access to specialist support by rural GPs. [11]

Communication pathways

Communication between GPs and hospital-based services is regarded as a major challenge facing general practice in Australia. The main form of communication from hospitals to GPs is the discharge summary and specialist letter with GPs receiving information mainly from  hospital  medical  officers.  [5]  The  variable  quality  and  poor

timeliness of information received has been shown to impede quality communication between GPs and hospitals. These factors were attributed to poor understandings of GP roles in cancer care and their information needs, as well as inexperience of medical officers. [5] It was found that hospital communications to GPs tend to omit social information about the patient. As cancer patients have been shown to be dependent on GPs for psychosocial support, the social needs of cancer patients may not be addressed adequately by GPs if poor communication persists. [1]


It was also shown that GPs preferred to receive a multi-disciplinary discharge summary containing input from all health professionals involved. [5] The creation of electronic health records may facilitate the  development  of  such  a  discharge  summary.  In  Canada,  the British Columbia (BC) e-health initiative allows authorized health professionals working in BC to access complete patient records when and where they were required. [12] This initiative was shown to reduce patient delays and costs to healthcare providers and patients and is a great demonstration of how improved communication via improved access to patient records may improve healthcare outcomes of cancer patients. Nonetheless, it is important that such electronic platforms are developed for and with healthcare practitioners to allow them to tackle the patient’s needs without being burdened by technology. [12]

Regular  meetings  may  also  improve  communication  between  GPs and specialists. Mitchell et al. suggested that GPs should be regularly involved in hospital-based multi-disciplinary team (MDT) meetings. [13] It is heartening that a national survey found that 84% of GPs would consider taking part in MDT meetings should the opportunity arise. [14] This suggests that formalization of MDT meetings is highly feasible. Cancer patients may benefit from the sharing of experiences between members of a formalized MDT team and this could be crucial to patients who suffer from low-incidence cancers where experience of the team matters and also to GPs, who would otherwise have little awareness about which specialists to approach for specific cancers. [13]

Remuneration and financial incentives

Inadequate remuneration may also deter GPs from accepting additional responsibilities.  A recent study found an increasing proportion of Australian GPs are not involved in palliative care (25%) as compared to previous rates of 5% and 8% in 1993 and 1998 respectively. [15] Poor remuneration in relation to the time and knowledge required for palliative care may be a deterring factor. There is currently no requirement for GPs to provide after-hour services for palliative care and some GPs also reflect that they are not confident enough to manage the technical and psychosocial aspects of palliative care. [15]

Financial incentives may be helpful as the workload of GPs has increased but their incomes have decreased relative to specialist incomes. [6] In the United Kingdom, the Gold Standards Framework for palliative care rewards GPs who are interested in palliative care and demonstrate quality care through regular meetings and maintenance of a patient register. [16] Such a scheme may attract GPs to be more involved in palliative care. In addition, to increase involvement of GPs in population-based screening programs, the current payment scheme in Australia should be revised to reward service not just based on service to symptomatic patients but also asymptomatic cancer patients who approach GPs for counseling and other psychosocial issues. [8]

Role of healthcare providers

The  roles  of  healthcare  providers  are  often  unclear.  Holmberg  et al. reported that while some people understand the role of GPs in cancer care, others felt that their roles were not stated explicitly in guidelines. [17] The varying perception of GP roles may hinder GPs from expressing their information needs and prevent their expanded involvement in treatment and follow-ups.  It has been shown that patients prefer to know who is in charge and parallel care may provide a clearer definition of GP and specialist roles. [18] Moreover, parallel care is not as demanding as shared care in terms of the level of communication required to facilitate coordination of cancer care and may therefore be favoured by both GPs and specialists. [18] While it is important to align patients’ perception with the preferences of healthcare providers, a parallel pattern of care may not be necessarily be the most effective. This explains why there is now a gradual move towards multi-disciplinary care based on shared care models, which was highlighted in Australia’s 2009 report on ‘A healthier future for all Australians’. [19]

A shared care model would require clarity of roles and a need to recognize and expand the role of primary care without compromising healthcare outcomes. Two randomized control trials in the United Kingdom (UK) and Canada showed that follow-up of breast cancer patients by GPs was as safe as follow-up by specialists while an Australian study showed no difference in recurrence rates of colorectal cancer patient after follow up by GPs or specialists. [20,21] These studies imply that GPs may undertake a greater role in the follow- up phase. Similarly, there may also be a growing role for GPs in the treatment phase,  in  terms of  management of toxicity episodes or pre-chemotherapy checks, as new oral chemotherapeutic agents are developed. [13]

Access  to  protocols  such  as  The  Cancer  institute  NSW  Standard Cancer Treatment Program (CI-SCaT) may allow GPs to manage cancer patients without requiring too much reliance on specialist expertise. [13] Similarly, GPs can access wiki-based clinical practice guidelines which are developed and constantly updated by Cancer Council Australia. [22] GPs based in rural/remote areas have been relying on generic clinical skills adapted to cancer care to manage cancer patients for years and supplementation of these skills by specialized cancer information may improve the feasibility and practicality of GP-based cancer management. [23]

GP preferences and input

While there is much potential for the expansion of GP roles, GP preferences and their input in cancer plans needs to be valued. GPs generally express interest in being involved in areas that are traditionally within their remit such as prevention, diagnosis, surveillance and psychological support but less than 50% of GPs expressed a desire to undertake coordination roles in treatment and supportive care. [7] These observations may reflect underlying structural and systemic constraints (e.g. workload and payment structures) that could only be addressed effectively at a governmental level. Conversely, as mentioned previously, GPs in rural/remote areas are already actively involved in coordination of cancer and psychological care and thus they may accept expanded roles more readily.

Ultimately, there needs to be a buildup of trust and confidence in GP capabilities and increased involvement of GPs in cancer control plans will  be  necessary.  Internationally,  the  UK  National  Health  Service (NHS) has involved GPs in its cancer plan since 2000. [1] Similarly, in Australia, GPs have been involved in the National Service Improvement Framework for Cancer while a scoping exercise undertaken by the National Cancer Control Initiative in 2004 has sought to identify areas of priority to support cancer care by primary healthcare providers. [1] A result of which was the Cancer Service Networks National Demonstration Program (CanNET) which was funded by the Australia government in seven states. It was conceived as a means of identifying opportunities to improve the organization and delivery of cancer care via MDTs and managed clinical networks (MCNs) so as to improve outcomes and reduce disparities in cancer survival rates across population groups. [24]

Lessons from CanNET

The evaluation of CanNET provided valuable insights into the provision of multi-disciplinary cancer care. For example, in addition to effective communication, it was found that networking events and activities were essential  to  building  up  professional  relationships  between healthcare providers. [24] Moreover, although GPs were willing to be involved in MDT sessions, engaging GPs was found to be difficult due to constraints imposed on general practice. [24] This suggests that while examining constraints on the specialist side is important and has been researched extensively, increased focus should also be placed on alleviating constraints on the GP side.

CanNET was also found to increase the work burden for healthcare providers. [24] This has prompted a re-think of healthcare providers’ roles to incorporate more flexibility.  A number of innovative roles are found overseas and could be trialed in various CanNET networks. For example, the Uniting Primary Care and Oncology Network (UPCON) in Manitoba advocated the use of medical leaders in the form of lead family physicians (FPs). [25] These lead FPs are primary care physicians within a practice who have an interest in cancer care and constantly engage in regular education programs and meetings jointly organized by oncologists and FPs. They disseminate useful information to colleagues and also play an advisory role by raising issues pertaining to primary care during meetings with oncologists and the Manitoba cancer agency. Besides occasionally accepting referrals, lead FPs did not have to perform difficult or unfamiliar tasks and they were remunerated according to their level of involvement. [25] This program managed to improve the partnership between GPs and other healthcare providers and could potentially fit into the Australian system.

Consistent with the theme of medical leadership, it was found that the introduction of continuing professional development (CPD) was effective in promoting local champions in some CanNET networks. CPD opportunities such as mentoring and clinical placements were received positively and more than half of the healthcare providers surveyed acknowledged that these activities helped increased their knowledge and skills and provided valuable networking opportunities. [24] Nonetheless, more work is required to address potential constraints such as workload and staff shortages. This again raises the importance of tele-oncology as a possible solution as essential oncology skills may be learnt during GP sit-ins with patients, therefore reducing the need for face-to-face attendance of workshops.

Looking to the future- the ideal oncology curriculum

The Oncology Education Committee of Cancer Council Australia has developed an ideal oncology curriculum for medical schools with the aim of equipping students with the knowledge, skills and attitude to provide quality care to cancer patients and their caregivers. This curriculum  has  been  reviewed  recently  to  include  more  emphasis on clinical experiences such as ‘observing all components of multi- disciplinary  cancer  care’.  [26]  These  changes  reflect  the  need  for future doctors who are able to work within a multi-disciplinary cancer care setting and who can understand the role of healthcare providers (including GPs) in different phases of a cancer patient’s journey. [26] Students who are interested in becoming GPs will need to be familiar with the specific needs and requirements of cancer patients as GPs are often the first point of call. Furthermore, students who take up the Medical Rural Bonded Scholarship Scheme (MRBS) and end up in rural settings will be expected to take up more responsibility than their urban counterparts. As such, changes in medical education may pave the way for changes in future medical practice.


Cancer management in Australia is gradually changing toward a shared care model with a focus on multi-disciplinary care. In this context, there is an increasing demand for GPs to expand their roles to relieve the pressure on other healthcare providers. Existing constraints that impede the involvement of GP will need to be addressed. These include issues pertaining to communication, remuneration, role clarity as well as GP preferences and input. A number of initiatives such as CanNET were implemented and has helped identify areas which could promote a greater role for general practice in cancer care. Overseas healthcare initiatives such as UPCON and the BC e-health initiative will also provide further valuable lessons in our search for solutions. Currently, tele-oncology appears to be a viable approach in improving rural GP involvement in cancer care and alleviating workload and staff shortages.

In conclusion, GPs have the capacity to provide quality cancer care alongside their specialist counterparts and it would be a more efficient use of healthcare resources to involve rather than neglect them. It is unlikely that specialist cancer care will be compromised as they form the core component of the actual treatment process whereas GPs are envisioned to take up coordinating as well as diagnosis and follow-up roles. As the roles of the GP can be flexible depending on preference and expertise, this is in itself advantageous as cancer care is no longer limited by the number of specialists. Specialist care may also be enhanced due to a more focused and individualized approach afforded by the less workload taken on by the specialists.



Conflict of interest

None declared.


K Ho:


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