The impact of physicians’ disease-specific expertise on patient outcome is unknown. While previous studies suggest a survival advantage for cancer patients cared for at high volume centers, these observations may simply reflect referral bias or better access to advanced technologies, clinical trials, and multidisciplinary support at large centers.
We evaluated time to first treatment(TTFT) and overall survival(OS) of patients with newly diagnosed chronic lymphocytic leukemia/small lymphocytic lymphoma(CLL) at a single academic center based on whether they were cared for by a hematologist/oncologist who sub-specializes in CLL(CLL hematologist) or a hematologist/oncologist with expertise in other areas(non-CLL hematologist).
Among 1309 newly diagnosed patients with CLL cared for between 1999–2009, 773(59%) were cared for by CLL hematologists and 536 were cared for by non-CLL hematologists. Among early stage patients(Rai 0-I), median TTFT(9.2 vs. 6.1 years; p<0.001) and OS(10.5 years vs. 8.8 years; p<0.001) were superior for patients cared for by CLL hematologists. For all patients, OS was superior for patients cared for by CLL hematologists(10.5 years vs. 8.4 years; p=0.001). Physician’s disease-specific expertise remained an independent predictor of OS after adjusting for age, stage, sex, and lymphocyte count. Patients seen by a CLL hematologist were also more likely participate in clinical trials(48% vs. 16%; p<0.001).
Physician disease-specific expertise appears to influence outcome in patients with CLL. To the greatest extent possible, patients should be cared for by a hematologist/oncologist expert in the care of their specific malignancy. When not possible, practice guidelines developed by disease-specific experts should be followed.