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The role of an oncologist

6-minute read

Key facts

  • Oncologists diagnose and treat different types of cancer in different parts of the body.
  • There are 3 main types of oncologists: medical oncologists, surgical oncologists and radiation oncologists.
  • If you have been diagnosed with cancer or you have signs or symptoms that mean you might have cancer, your doctor will give you a referral to see an oncologist.
  • Ask your doctor, close friends or family to recommend a good oncologist in your area.

What is an oncologist?

An oncologist is a specialist doctor who has training to identify, diagnose and treat people with cancer.

Oncologists diagnose and treat different types of cancer in different parts of the body. An oncologist will be part of your cancer treatment from the time you are diagnosed up to your follow-up post treatment.

What types of oncologists are there?

There are 3 main types of oncologists.

  • Medical oncologists use medicines to treat cancer. Examples of medical treatments include chemotherapy, hormone therapy and immunotherapy.
  • Surgical oncologists remove tumours during an operation. They also take tissue samples (biopsies) from the body to be sent for testing.
  • Radiation oncologists use radiation to treat cancer. This is also sometimes called radiotherapy.

These different types of oncologists often work together as a team to diagnose, treat and care for people with cancer.

Some oncologists are sub-specialists in specific areas of the body. You may be referred to a:

  • gynaecological oncologist, who treats cancers of the female reproductive system
  • colorectal oncologist, who specialises in bowel cancers affecting the colon and rectum
  • head and neck oncologist, who specialises in cancers in the head and neck area

Other oncologists specialise in areas of the body, such as parts of the digestive system. Some specialise in certain types of cancers, such as breast cancer or skin cancers.

Some oncologists work mainly with children (paediatric oncologists), others work with adults, and some might treat both.

When do I see an oncologist?

If you have been diagnosed with cancer or you have signs or symptoms of cancer, your doctor will give you a referral to see an oncologist. A surgical oncologist may take tissue samples (biopsies) to see if a growth is cancerous or to check its size and if it has spread to other areas of the body.

What should I expect during a first appointment with an oncologist?

Your first appointment will start with a review of your medical history and your oncologist ask you about your symptoms. Your oncologist may also examine you, and may order some tests. You might need to wait for the results before you can discuss a treatment plan together.

Once you have agreed upon a care plan, you can start your treatment.

What questions should I ask an oncologist?

It is important to ask questions, especially if you don’t understand what the doctor is saying or need more information.

ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use the Question Builder for general tips on what to ask your GP or specialist.

What training has an oncologist had?

An oncologist has completed at least 5 or 6 years of specialist training, after becoming a doctor.

In Australia, most medical oncologists are members of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians and members of the Medical Oncology Group of Australia (MOGA). They have the initials FRACP after their name.

Most surgical oncologists are members of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons (FRACS).

Most radiation oncologists are members of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Radiologists (FRANZCR).

Where do they work?

Oncologists see their patients in a clinic or surgery. Many work in public and private hospitals. Some are involved in cancer research.

How to find an oncologist

Ask your doctor, close friends or family to recommend a good oncologist.

You can also use healthdirect's Service Finder.

Do I need a referral to see an oncologist?

It is important to get a referral from your GP to see an oncologist. That way, your GP can pass on useful information, and the oncologist can later tell your GP about your visit.

If you don't have a referral, neither Medicare nor private health insurance will contribute to the cost of your care.

How much will an oncologist cost?

The fees for an oncologist vary widely depending on:

  • the type of care you receive
  • whether it's in hospital
  • whether you have private health insurance
  • what the oncologist charges

Out of hospital care

If you see an oncologist in their rooms, then Medicare will cover:

  • all of the costs if they bulk bill
  • some of the costs if they don't bulk bill

You can't use private health insurance for out of hospital care.

Treatment in a public hospital using Medicare

If you are treated in a public hospital or clinic and use Medicare, you won’t need to pay for your visit. Medicare covers all costs associated with treatment in a public hospital as a public patient.

Treatment in a public or private hospital using private health insurance

If you use private health insurance for treatment in either a public hospital or a private hospital or clinic, you will be charged by the oncologist and by the hospital. You might also be charged for pathology tests, x-rays and other forms of imaging, and by other doctors you see, such as an anaesthetist. Your private health insurance may cover some of these costs.

Asking about the costs

It can be expensive to see specialists. Before you go for the first time, ask the oncologist or their staff about the costs. You can also ask what Medicare will cover.

If you plan to use private health insurance, you can also contact your health fund. If the costs are too high, you can:

  • ask the oncologist or their staff about a reduction
  • consider another oncologist or health service
  • talk to your GP about options such as different type of treatment

Resources and support

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: February 2023

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