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There are five steps to choosing an oncologist:

Step 1: Choose the type of oncologist you need.
Step 2: Set criteria that work for you.
Step 3: Search for doctors that most closely fit your criteria. If you are going to have more than one oncologist (such as a medical oncologist and a radiation oncologist), they do not have to be members of the same practice or even associated with each other.
Step 4. Speak with the doctor's office to gain practical information.
Step 5: Meet with the doctor.

If you are choosing a surgical or radiation oncologist, instead of reading the other sections of this document, click on the appropriate link:

NOTE: Before agreeing to a treatment, ask all questions of concern to you. For a list of suggested questions, see:

Step 1. Choose The Type Of Oncologist You Need

An oncologist is a doctor who specializes in the treatment of cancer. The different types of oncologist are:

  • Medical oncolgist: an oncologist that specializes in chemotherapy treatments, who also oversees other types of treatments.
  • Radiation oncolgoist: an oncologist that specializes in providing radiation treatments.
  • Surgical oncologist: a surgeon who specializes in performing cancer operations.
  • Gynecologic oncologist: a surgeon who specializes in tumors of the female reproductive organs
  • Neuro-oncologist: an oncologist who specializes in providing chemotherapy for cancers of the nervous system.
  • Urologic oncologist:  an oncologist who specializes in tumors of the prostate, bladder or kidney.

Step 2: Set Criteria That Work For You

In addition to your own criteria, common wisdom is that you will have the best outcome if your oncologist meets the following criteria:

  • Is board certified. Certification by the American Board of Medical Specialties certifies that a doctor has completed training and passed an exam in a particular specialty. (You can check whether a doctor is board certified at offsite link)
  • Has a good deal of experience with your particular cancer and stage -- and has a good success rate.
  • Works with a high quality hospital that has a lot of success with people with your type of cancer. (A doctor's connection with a hospital is known as an "affiliation"). You may receive treatment in the hospital. If you need to be hospitalized for other reasons, it will likely be in that hospital as well. (For information about how to choose a hospital, click here.)
  • Is someone who is open to new ideas and keeps up-to-date on the latest research.
  • Is willing to do and explore everything available to fight for you, just like a close friend would who has your back
  • Is not biased against your sex, ethnic group, race, or sexual preference.
  • Is someone you trust
  • Is someone with whom you feel comfortable. It is likely that he or she will be your oncologist for a long time - possibly the rest of your life. 
  • Is someone with whom you can develop a rapport. Studies indicate that a rapport with a doctor can be important. Not being liked by a doctor can affect your health care. It's also interesting to note that doctors tend to talk more to the patients they identify with and like. 
  • Is respected by his or her peers. (This can be hard to determine. Your primary care doctor may have an opinion or a suggestion about how to learn what other doctors think. It is a good sign if the doctor is affiliated with a top quality hospital.)
  • Cares about you as an individual yet can remain objective. One way to determine this is during an initial interview.
  • Is patient. One indication: does the doctor give you the time to tell your story and to thoroughly evaluate your condition?
  • Is thorough. Thoroughness is important to be sure important details aren't missed.
  • Is willing to share his or her reasoning process about treatment suggestions and can give you thoughtful explanations in language you can understand.
  • Is open to questions and will answer you thoughtfully and understandably.
  • Can schedule you reasonably soon. 

It is also helpful if the doctor treats your Patient Advocate and family members with consideration and is available in a reasonable time frame both during and outside of office hours and who delivers test results without delay. Waiting for test results can be particularly maddening and stressful.
If you look at a doctor's training, the medical school is often less important than where the doctor took postgraduate or specialty training. The best training is usually at large, university-affiliated hospitals (often called "teaching hospitals").

We haven't seen any studies on whether a doctor's bedside manner relates to outcomes. It's up to you whether bedside manner is important or not.

NOTE: If your situation is the least bit out of the ordinary, consider looking for an oncologist connected with one of the country's National Cancer Institute (NCI) designated comprehensive cancer centers or a hospital connected with a medical school. If one is not nearby, at least consult doctor at such a hospital for a second opinion. You can implement their advice locally. For a list of NCI comprehensive cancer centers, click here.  

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Step 3: Search For Doctors That Most Closely Fit Your Criteria

Start by looking at the list of doctors who contract with your health plan. If you don't find what you need in the most recent lists you've been sent, check your insurer's web site to see if there have been additional doctors added. Unless you have the money to go outside of your insurer's list ("out of network"), you may have to compromise your criteria.

To find additional doctors, ask your other doctors, friends and particularly people who have the same health condition. When you talk with other people with the same condition, a few names are likely to rise to the top of the list. If so, those are the doctors to interview. There are also web sites that help you locate doctors. Even if you don't use the sites to locate doctors, they generally provide information about doctors, including disciplinary information.

If you live in a very small community or a larger one without a good choice of cancer specialists from whom to choose, or a hospital of high standards and good support services, consider seeking diagnosis and treatment from an oncologist in a large regional hospital or in a nearby city. While the distance can make treatment more difficult, your life is at stake.
  • If you see more than one oncologist, such as a medical oncologist who is your primary oncologist, and a radiation oncologist for radiation treatments, they do not have to be part of the same practice or even associated with each other. While most doctors prefer to work with other doctors with whom they are closely associated, the key is to find the best doctor for you in each speciality - including your comfort factor. For example, Mary W. decided not to be treated by a radiologist partner of her medical oncologist because she did not think he took her personal needs sufficiently into account. Instead, she located a radiologist who let her play her own music and agreed to keep people from the control room where they could see her on a monitor. 
  • If you decide to go to a doctor who is not in your insurer's network, consider negotiating a discount. Studies show that 60% of patients who negotiate get charged less. You can learn reasonable prices for medical services at your insurer's web site or by calling the company. Steeper discounts are usually given for paying cash.

Step 4: Speak With The Doctor's Office To Gain Practical Information

When you speak with the office staff you'll be able to learn such things as whether the doctor takes new patients, takes your insurance, office hours and how long it takes to get an appointment. If there is a long time lag for initial visits, a doctor can help you get an appointment sooner than you could on your own.

Step 5: Meet With The Doctor

No matter how good a doctor seems on paper, you won't know your response to the doctor until the two of you meet, especially whether you trust him or her. The choice of oncologist is important. This is the doctor who will be the point person who will be responsible for determining your treatment, giving or overseeing the provision of the treatment and follow-up care, possibly for the rest of your life.