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 have influence over your care. This section describes points to consider when choosing a specialist, and outlines your rights when making a decision.

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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.

  • 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
  • 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 Health care in Australia.

Read more about choosing a specialist

Key issues in choosing a specialist

Issues to consider when deciding which specialist should be responsible for your treatment, include:

Number of patients

  • Some specialists and treatment centres see a large number of patients with certain types of cancer 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

  • Evidence suggests 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.
  • MDT meet regularly to review cases and consider treatment options. 
    Also discusses how best to help the patient cope with the physical and emotional effects of cancer.

Specialist centres

  • Some treatment centres specialise in specific types of cancer. They tend to have many patients and also treat rarer cancers or cancers that don’t have a typical response to treatment. 
  • To find out about a specialist centre, ask your GP for suggestions. If they’re not familiar with specialist centres, they may be able to refer you to someone who is.
  • 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.
Read more key issues in choosing a specialist

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.

What if I live in a regional or rural area? 

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 ruralhealthaustralia.gov.au, search for ‘PATS’ and click on ‘Patient Assisted Travel Schemes’.

Read more about how to find a specialist

This information was last reviewed in April 2016
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