Penticton will lose the city’s lone oncologist as of September, but health officials say care of cancer patients will not be impacted by the change.
Currently, three general practitioners in oncology work alongside a medical oncologist at Penticton Regional Hospital. Medical oncologist Dr. Deepu Mirchandani, who has worked in Penticton for several years, sees approximately 200 new patients per year from the hospital’s catchment. Approximately 40 to 50 of those patients must travel to Kelowna for treatment of more rare tumours that are outside of Mirchandani’s skill set.
Mirchandani, however, is moving to the Centre for Southern Interior after Sept. 2.
“There will be no impact on patients requiring systemic therapy in Penticton, but the cancer care team will provide the best service that they can and have been for cancer patients,” said Johanna Denduyf, B.C. Cancer Agency’s senior director of the communities oncology network.
The agency will implement a service delivery model used in other areas of the province, she said, where patients are treated locally at community cancer centres by oncology GPs, who act under the guidance and direction of the medical oncologist who is based at a regional centre.
Newly diagnosed patients will travel to Kelowna for an initial consultation with a medical oncologist, who will then consult with GPs back in Penticton on treatment like chemotherapy.
“Some patients would only require a consultation and would never have to be seen by a specialist in the cancer care system, and other patients require ongoing surveillance and monitoring and would be seen more frequently,” Denduyf explained.
If a medical issue were to come up during treatment, she added, GPs have immediate phone or e-mail access to regional medical oncologists, who are always on staff.
“There’s always somebody covering,” she said, adding health officials have found the system to be “pretty transparent and pretty efficient.
“I think the relationship between the cancer care team in the communities and the regional cancer care team is very strong.”
Those currently under Mirchandani’s care will have a choice over their treatment location.
“The patient can choose to continue to be seen by the care team at the Penticton cancer centre, particularly if they’re on systemic therapy,” Denduyf said. “The general practitioners in oncology would take responsibility for monitoring and providing them medical care in concert with Dr. Mirchandani as required.
“Patients are also being offered, if they wish to be seen by Dr. Mirchandani on an ongoing basis, that we will facilitate the transfer of their care to the Kelowna Cancer Centre for the Southern Interior. They have a choice.”
Denduyf said the B.C. Cancer Agency is now actively seeking another general practitioner to work with the Penticton oncology team, because they have tried to recruit an oncology specialist for three years with no success.
“There are challenges in recruiting to a solo practice in a community cancer setting,” she explained. “It doesn’t appeal to everybody.”
Walter Despot, the Okanagan Similkameen Regional Hospital District board chair, said Penticton is not alone in having troubles attracting specialists.
“There’s just not enough to meet the demand and needs,” he said. “Whatever the specialty is, there’s just not enough.
“Hospitals and Interior Health are constantly looking to replace specialists that have left. They’re working on it constantly and as diligently as possible. If the numbers out there are minimal, then it’s very challenging. There’s only so many of them around. Unfortunately we don’t produce the numbers that we need — and that’s easier said than done.”