Deciding on specialist care

Friday 1 April, 2016

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On this page: Choosing a specialist | How to find a specialist | Key points


It is important that you feel comfortable and confident with your choice of specialist because you will have a lot of contact with them and they will have influence over your care. This section describes points to consider when choosing a specialist, and outlines your rights when making a decision.

Choosing a specialist

Under the Medicare system, you need a referral to see a specialist. This referral can come from a GP or another specialist. Some people are happy to leave the choice of specialist to their GP. However, you have a right to be involved if you would like to be. You may prefer to choose a specialist based on recommendations from other people, such as family, friends or colleagues.

Public or private treatment

You are entitled to be treated as a public patient in a public hospital. If you are treated in the public system, you can be referred to any specialist regardless of where they are located. You can have a say in where you are treated by researching a public treatment centre that may specialise in the type of cancer you have (see specialist centres). Keep in mind that public hospitals may give priority to patients in their local area, so you may have to wait longer if you want to be treated by a specialist outside your area.

If you have private health insurance, you can be treated as a private patient in a private facility, or you can avoid out-of-pocket expenses by being treated in a public hospital. See more information about paying for cancer care.

Questions you may want to ask the surgeon or oncologist

A cancer diagnosis and treatment often means many medical appointments. Before visiting the doctor, take some time to prepare for the appointment.

  • Do you specialise in this type of surgery?
  • Can I talk to someone who has had this surgery?
  • Have you treated a lot of people with this type of cancer?
  • Do you work in a multidisciplinary team?
  • Are you a member of the relevant section of a specialist college (e.g. for breast cancer, the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons breast section)?
  • Which hospitals or treatment centres do you work or operate in?
Key issues in choosing a specialist

There are a few issues to consider when deciding which specialist should be responsible for your treatment.

Number of patients

Some specialists and treatment centres have particular expertise in treating certain types of cancer because they see a large number of patients and therefore have more experience.

For some types of cancer, there is evidence that health professionals who treat a lot of patients have the best outcomes.

Multidisciplinary care

There is evidence that patients have better outcomes if their doctor works as part of a multidisciplinary team (MDT). This means health professionals work together to plan treatment and manage care.

The MDT often includes a surgeon, a medical oncologist, a radiation oncologist, a cancer care coordinator, a nurse and allied health professionals, such as a physiotherapist and a dietitian. They meet regularly to review cases and consider treatment options.

The team also discusses how best to help the patient cope with the physical and emotional effects of cancer.

Visit Cancer Australia for tips on communicating with your treatment team.

Specialist centres

Another way to tap into expertise is to see if there are treatment centres that specialise in the type of cancer you have. These centres have many patients and also tend to treat rarer cancers or cancers that don’t have a typical response to treatment.

You may not be aware of the treatment centres that specialise in the type of cancer you have. Ask your GP for suggestions. If they’re not familiar with specialist centres, they may be able to refer you to someone who is.

The key principle is that it’s your right to ask about specialist treatment centres and to be referred to a specialist in one of those centres, even if it’s not in your local area.

Specialist treatment centres are often teaching centres, which means you might be treated by a junior doctor who is supervised by a specialist. There could be long waiting lists for these centres.

How to find a specialist

Ask your GP

If your GP has already referred you to a specialist or treatment centre, you should ask on what basis they have referred you – is it because the specialist has particular skills or simply because they are nearby?

Your GP should have clear reasons for referring you to a particular specialist, and you are entitled to ask about those reasons and to receive an answer. You also have the right to ask your GP for a referral to more than one specialist.

Search online

Check the websites of cancer organisations for a list of specialists. For example, you can search for colorectal surgeons on the Bowel Cancer Australia website.

Contact the treating hospital or centre

The websites of many hospitals allow you to search for a specialist who works at that location. Alternatively, you can call the hospital and ask about specialists who treat the type of cancer you have.

Rural patients

In rural areas, your GP may refer you to a local specialist or treatment centre, or to a visiting oncologist.

There are some excellent regional cancer centres in Australia, and some specialists in these areas treat many cancer patients.

However, some regional specialists treat far fewer cancer cases than doctors in metropolitan areas, and there may be a long wait to see the visiting oncologist.

If treatment for your cancer type is not available close to home and you must travel for treatment, you may be eligible for financial assistance to pay for travel to a suitable treatment centre. Accommodation costs may also be covered.

To find out about assistance programs in your area, call Cancer Council 13 11 20 or visit the Department of Health website, search for ‘PATS’ and click on ‘Patient Assisted Travel Schemes’.

Key points

  • Under the Medicare system, you need a referral to see a specialist. This referral can come from a GP or another specialist. You can be involved with this choice if you prefer.
  • If you need or want to be treated in the public system, you can be referred to any specialist regardless of where they are located. Public hospitals may give priority to patients in their local area.
  • If you have private health insurance, you can be treated as a private patient in either a private or public hospital.
  • You may want to ask the specialist about their experience, such as how many cases of this cancer type they have treated and whether they are a member of a specialist college.
  • Some specialists and treatment centres have particular expertise in treating certain types of cancer because they see a large number of patients.
  • Health professionals often work together to plan and manage cancer treatment and care. This is called a multidisciplinary team (MDT).
  • Some treatment centres tend to specialise in diagnosing and treating a particular type of cancer.
  • Your doctor should have clear reasons for referring you to a particular specialist. You are entitled to ask about those reasons and to receive an answer.
  • It’s your right to choose to have treatment close to home (if it’s available) or to be referred out of your local area. Rural areas may have a local specialist, a treatment centre or a visiting oncologist.

Reviewers:Therese Burke, General Counsel, Cancer Council NSW; Toni Ashmore, Manager, Cancer Psychosocial Service, ACT Health, ACT; Art Beavis, Consumer; Marina Kastelan, Neuro-Oncology Cancer Care Coordinator, Royal North Shore and North Shore Private Hospitals, NSW; Dr Deborah Lawson, Legal Policy Advisor, McCabe Centre for Law and Cancer, Cancer Council Victoria and Union for International Cancer Control, VIC; Sarah Penman, Legal and Financial Support Services Manager, Cancer Council NSW; Jeanne Potts, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council Victoria, VIC; Sharnie Rolfe, Consumer; Helen Tayler, Social Worker/Counsellor, Cancer Counselling Service, Belconnen Community Health Centre, ACT. We would also like to thank the health professionals and consumers who worked on previous editions of this title, as well as the original writers: Louisa Fitz-Gerald, Jenny Mothoneos, Vivienne O’Callaghan, Marge Overs and Laura Wuellner.
Updated: 01 Apr, 2016