Evaluating a Care Team

It is recommended that patients receive treatment at a high-volume center from a multidisciplinary team. Ideally, the team members will have expertise in head and neck cancer. Because head and neck cancer is a relatively rare type of cancer (3 percent of all cancer cases in the U.S.), there are likely to be few locations with a cancer care team that has this expertise.

Criteria for assessment

Researchers have evaluated the characteristics of either physicians and/or health care facilities that affect outcomes. There are limitations to these studies; the researchers who did these studies often evaluated patients with different types of cancer and did not all look at the same characteristics.

Characteristics associated with physicians that contributed to improved outcomes included:

  • Surgeons who perform a high volume of surgeries versus a low volume
  • Specialists with expertise in the type of cancer versus generalists

Characteristics associated with hospitals that contributed to improved outcomes included:

  • Hospitals that performed a high volume of surgeries had improved patient survival rates of 19 to 60 percent compared to hospitals that performed a low volume of surgeries.
  • Hospitals that provided other specialized services were more successful in reducing treatment side effects.
  • National Cancer Institute (NCI) hospitals had lower mortality rates versus non-NCI hospitals.

Treatment can also take place at NCI-designated centers. These centers offer the following advantages: multidisciplinary teams; access to clinical trials, which may be ideal for people with advanced head and neck cancer who have few treatment options; and specialization in rare cancers.

In summary, clinicians and health care centers that can provide the following improve outcomes:

  • Multidisciplinary teams
  • Clinicians and/or a hospital center with a specialty in head and neck cancer
  • Health care professionals and/or hospitals that perform high numbers of particular medical procedures
  • NCI-designated personnel or facilities

Even though experts recommend these criteria to select a specialist or health care center, it’s important to also factor in criteria important to you and your loved one. For example, receiving treatment at a location close to home, friends and family is important to many patients.

I was never scared, and I really think a lot of that had to do with the confidence I had in my surgeon.Tony L. (oral cancer survivor)