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Choosing Your Cancer Treatment Hospital

How can you tell a good cancer treatment hospital from a mediocre one?
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WebMD Feature

It may be one of the first things that came to mind when you were diagnosed with cancer: Is this hospital really the best choice for my cancer treatment?

But how can you find the answer? You may feel helpless. How would you -- who may not know the first thing about treating this disease -- be able to tell a good cancer treatment hospital from a bad one?

Take a deep breath. Choosing a cancer treatment hospital is not as scary as it might seem. You’ve got more resources available to you than you might realize. All it takes is a little research. The reward -- starting treatment with real confidence in your doctors and your hospital -- is worth the effort.

Here are some things to consider when choosing a cancer treatment hospital:

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  • Ask around. Recommendations are key. Talk to friends and family and see what their experiences have been like at local medical centers. Ask your health care provider about the professional reputation of cancer treatment hospitals, particularly in treating your type of cancer.
  • Focus on the doctor first. You could start by looking for a doctor, not a hospital. “As a general rule of thumb, if an oncologist is good and highly recommended, he or she is going to be practicing at a good hospital,” says Terri Ades, MS, APRN-BC, AOCN, director of cancer information at the American Cancer Society in Atlanta.
  • Is the hospital nearby? Though some people choose to go to a specialized cancer center in another part of the country, that may not be possible for everyone. Convenience is important, since during chemotherapy or radiation you probably won't feel your best. You may need a friend to drive you to the local hospital from time to time for treatment, so be sure and think through the details. If you’re having surgery that does not require long-term care, you may travel to a specialized cancer surgeon and then rely on a local doctor for your long-term treatment. 
  • Does your insurance cover care at this cancer treatment hospital? This is an obvious but important question.
  • Is this a specialty cancer center? A large treatment center with integrated care has advantages. “In a multi-specialty clinic, you’ve got experts under one roof who are used to working with each other,” says Jan C. Buckner, MD, chair of medical oncology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. “There’s a common medical record that they can all use.”
    However, a large cancer center may not be available nearby. That’s OK, says Ades. “A lot of people assume that they have to go to a major cancer center to get good care,” she tells WebMD. “But that’s not true. You can get the same treatment and excellent care at many hospitals throughout the U.S.” On the whole, cancer care is standardized, and doctors are generally following the same guidelines wherever you go.
  • Are clinical trials available at this cancer treatment hospital? A clinical trial is the study of a new type of treatment. "Clinical trials are the engine by which progress is made in cancer care. For many patients, treatment as part of a clinical trial may be an excellent option that enhances aspects of their care,” Harold J. Burstein, MD, a staff oncologist at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston and an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, tells WebMD. So always ask if a clinical trial might be right for you and whether a clinical trial for your type of cancer is being offered at your cancer treatment hospital. If it isn't, ask where such trials might be taking place.
  • Does the hospital offer education or social support? See if your cancer treatment hospital offers support groups for people going through treatment -- and their families. Buckner suggests that you also ask whether there are support groups for after you recover. “There are more and more longtime cancer survivors these days,” says Buckner, “and groups for them are quite helpful.”

Reviewed on April 24, 2009

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