Q&A With Dr. Eric Chen
By Virginia Smyth
Oncologist Eric Chen, MD, talks about why he's optimistic about cancer care.
Some people might think that oncology would be an especially challenging specialty, since you're often delivering difficult news. Why did you choose it?
I first started out in the academic world in research. But I realized that my passion was with patient care. With cancer, there is a lot of information and it's critical for patients to understand their options. It's satisfying to help them with that and to help them manage their expectations.
Why did you decide to practice oncology at Group Health?
I came here first as a moonlighter, covering on weekends. But I found a great group to work with. Patients get excellent care.
What makes patient care at Group Health different?
We have an integrated model, so all care is very coordinated between the primary care physician and specialists. Once there is a diagnosis, the referring physician will consult with the specialist to order the necessary tests — such as a biopsy or a scan. When the test results come in, the patient is assigned to an appropriate oncology specialist. The patient's primary care physician often is very involved in this process.
When you need to have a difficult conversation with a patient — you're delivering really bad news — how do you do that?
You have to provide hope, but you also want to be honest and realistic. It's a fine line between the two. Usually, it takes time to have these conversations. It's not a quick 20-minute thing. It involves multiple visits, and it also involves not just the patient, but also the family and their entire social network.
Are other members of the medical team involved too?
Yes, absolutely. It's not just me talking to the patient. The nurses who regularly see these patients, the patient's primary care doctor, and other specialists are often involved.
How has cancer care changed in the last couple of decades?
People used to get very sick from chemotherapy treatments. But today, there is a wider range of supportive medications to reduce toxicity, and there are sometimes chemo drug options that aren't as toxic. There are more treatment options, and a number of types of cancer are very curable. We are also getting better at diagnosis and screening for cancer with things like mammograms and colonoscopies. The oncology field is evolving and improving. I want people with cancer to know that there is hope.
What's on the horizon that you're excited about?
Group Health has a new affiliation with the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. SCCA is very selective about who they work with, so this is really an endorsement of our cancer care program. It means that some of our patients in the Seattle area will have additional treatment options through some clinical studies.