- Cancer Information
- Practical concerns
- Cancer care and your rights
- Your health care team
- Deciding on specialist care
Deciding on specialist care
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 influence your care.
Some people are happy to leave the choice of specialist to their GP. However, you have a right to be involved in this decision if you would like to be. You may prefer to choose a specialist based on your own research, or recommendations from family, friends or colleagues.
Learn more about:
- Choosing a specialist
- Key issues in choosing a specialist
- How to find a specialist
- If you live in a rural or remote area
You need a valid referral to claim Medicare benefits for a private specialist visit. This referral can come from a GP or another specialist.
You have the right to be treated as a public patient in any public hospital. If you are treated in the public system, you will be treated by the specialist appointed by the hospital, and you may see different specialists during the course of your treatment.
You might want to research public treatment centres that specialise in the type of cancer you have (see Specialist treatment centres). Keep in mind that if you choose to be treated in a public hospital outside your local area, you may have to wait longer for treatment.
Talk to your doctor about the best option for you.
If you have private health insurance, you can choose to be treated as a private patient, or you can avoid out-of-pocket costs by being treated as a public patient in a public hospital.
As soon as we met with the brachytherapy specialist, my wife and I looked at each other and more or less knew this was our guy. It was just a feeling – when he described the treatment, we felt confident.Derek
There are a few issues to think about when deciding which specialist should be responsible for your treatment. Before visiting your cancer specialist for the first time, take some time to prepare for the appointment (see some suggested questions for you doctor).
Number of patients
Some specialists have expertise in treating certain types of cancer because they see a large number of patients with that cancer. For some cancer types, there is evidence that specialists who treat a lot of patients with similar cancers have the best treatment outcomes.
There is evidence that patients do better if their doctor works as part of a multidisciplinary team (MDT). This means health professionals who specialise in different aspects of your care work together to plan treatment.
The MDT often includes surgeons, medical oncologists, radiologists, radiation oncologists, pathologists, cancer care coordinators and nurses, as well as allied health professionals, such as a physiotherapist, genetic counsellor, dietitian and social worker. The team meets regularly to review cases, consider treatment options and discuss ways to help people cope with the physical and emotional effects of cancer.
Not all specialists are part of an MDT, but you may be able to check online. For example, Lung Foundation Australia has a directory of MDTs in Australia. In NSW and the ACT, you can search to see which doctors are part of an MDT at canrefer.org.au.
These centres have multidisciplinary teams of health professionals experienced in treating particular cancers. Specialist treatment centres have many patients and also tend to treat rare cancers or cancers that don’t have a typical response to treatment. They are often teaching centres, which means you might be treated by a junior doctor who is supervised by a specialist.
You may want to ask your GP or other doctors about centres that specialise in treating the type of cancer that you have. It’s your right to be referred to a specialist in one of these centres, even if it’s not in your local area.
You may prefer to see all your doctors at the one hospital, even if it is a long way from home, or to attend your local hospital for some appointments to reduce travel time. It may also be possible to use telehealth for some consultations. It’s your right to determine what is most important to you, and your doctors should respect your preferences.
Ask your GP
Your GP will be able to refer you to a suitable specialist or treatment centre. Your GP should have clear reasons for their choice. You are entitled to ask about those reasons and to receive a clear answer – for example, is it because the specialist has particular skills or simply because they are nearby?
You also have the right to ask your GP for a referral to more than one specialist.
Check the websites of medical colleges for a list of specialists. For example, you can search for colorectal surgeons at Colorectal Surgical Society of Australia and New Zealand. You can also check a specialist’s registration at the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency.
To find cancer specialists, multidisciplinary teams and hospitals in NSW or ACT, you can visit the NSW Government website CanRefer.
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.
If any of your relatives or friends have had a similar cancer, you may ask them about the specialists they saw.
If you live in a rural or remote area
In rural areas, your GP may refer you to a local specialist or treatment centre, or to a visiting oncologist. Depending on the type of cancer, they may recommend that you travel to a centre that specialises in a particular treatment.
There are excellent regional cancer centres in Australia, and some regional specialists 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 you are concerned about the waiting time in your local area, you can ask to be referred to a specialist or treatment centre in another area.
If you have to travel for treatment, you may be eligible for state and territory government programs that help cover your travel costs. For details, call Cancer Council 13 11 20 or talk to the hospital social worker.
It may also be possible to have some specialist consultations using telehealth.
Podcast: Coping with a cancer diagnosis
Prof Sarah Lewis, Faculty of Medicine and Health, The University of Sydney, NSW; Kevin Bloom, Senior Social Worker, Haematology and Bone Marrow Transplant, Royal North Shore Hospital, NSW; Danielle Curnoe, Consumer; Alana Fitzgibbon, Clinical Nurse Consultant – Gastro-Intestinal Cancers, Cancer Services, Royal Hobart Hospital, TAS; Hall & Wilcox (law firm); Johanna Jordaan, Consumer; Dr Deme Karikios, Medical Oncologist, Nepean Cancer and Wellness Centre, Nepean Hospital, NSW; Melissa Lawrie, Breast Cancer Clinical Nurse, Cancer Services, Gold Coast Hospital and Health Service, QLD; Jacqueline Lesage, Consumer Reviewer, Cancer Voices NSW; McCabe Centre for Law and Cancer, VIC; Louise Pellerade, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA; Andrew Potter, Consumer; Siân Slade, PhD Candidate, Nossal Institute for Global Health and Non-Executive Director (health, disability sectors), VIC; Paula Watt, Clinical Psychologist, WOMEN Centre, WA.
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