Do Specialists Make a Difference in Breast Cancer Surgery?

11 May 2015 in

Breastlink doctors specialize specifically in breast cancer care and treatment. While we can talk about the benefits of specialization, is there actually evidence to suggest that specialists can improve outcomes for breast cancer patients?

To answer that question, it is worth revisiting a 2003 study that investigated how patients fared following breast cancer surgery when treated by a breast-dedicated surgical oncologist.

What Makes a Breast-Dedicated Surgical Oncologist?

Surgical oncology is not a boarded subspecialty. This means it can be difficult to determine whether a surgeon is a specialist in breast cancer surgery. One indicator is whether they belong to a professional medical association committed to advancing surgical oncology or breast cancer surgery.

Professional medical associations that reserve membership for specialists in surgical oncology include the American Society of Breast Surgeons (ASBrS) and Society of Surgical Oncologists (SSO). To achieve membership in either of these organizations, physicians must be board-certified in surgery and demonstrate a commitment specifically to surgical oncology.

When patients seek treatment from a breast-dedicated surgical oncologist, they can use membership in either of these professional medical associations to help guide their decision. Of course, patients should also consider a surgeon’s training, past experience and the type of practice where they currently work.

Do Specialists in Surgical Oncology Improve Outcomes?

To determine whether specialists actually make a difference, researchers investigated data from the Cancer Surveillance Program database for Los Angeles County. Membership in the SSO was used to determine whether patients were treated by a surgical oncologist or a non-specialist. Results were published July 2003 in Annals of Surgical Oncology.

  • A total of 29,666 breast cancer patients who underwent surgery were included in the study.
  • Patients treated by specialty surgical oncologists were 33 percent more likely to live for at least five years following their surgery than patients treated by non-specialists.
  • The 5-year survival rate for patients treated by surgical oncologists was 86 percent.
  • The 5-year survival rate for patients treated by non-specialists was 79 percent.

Researchers noted three possible reasons for better outcomes among patients treated by surgical oncologists.

  • Specialists perform more surgeries of a specific type than non-specialists, which leads to better results.
  • Advanced training received by specialists means they’re better prepared to perform these types of surgeries.
  • Specialists receive training in other types of cancer therapies in addition to surgical technique, which makes them more likely to refer patients appropriately.

“Patients who are operated on by a surgical oncologist rather than a general surgeon are more likely to long-term survival, perhaps, in part, because surgical oncologists are trained to understand the biology of the disease and to make more appropriate use of adjuvant therapies,” researchers concluded.

At Breastlink, we believe a multidisciplinary team of breast cancer specialists working together offers many benefits to patients. Studies such as this help to validate our core mission – working together as “One Center. One Focus. One Team.” leads to optimal breast health outcomes.

To learn more about our breast-dedicated surgeons, other breast cancer experts and our services, please contact us.

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