Fueled by a critical need for more cancer treatment services, Georgia Cancer Specialists has grown by six practices in the past year, making it the largest oncology practice in the state and one of the largest in the country.
It isn’t a growth market healthcare business owners care to crow about, but an increasing need for cancer care has turned the medical specialty of treating cancer patients into a booming business.
In turn, cancer patients now have greater access to more effective treatments and experimental therapies that can sometimes offer hope where traditional medical care has failed.
“Our success has a lot to do with the growth in Georgia’s population,” said Dr. Bruce Feinberg, CEO of Decatur-based Georgia Cancer Specialists (GCS). “We are a young population, but growing and aging, and, unfortunately, we will see increased instances of cancer.”
Formed in 1995, the result of a merger with Georgia Hemotology/ Oncology Clinic, GCS now operates 23 clinics in the 13-county metro Atlanta area. Last year, the company’s 33 doctors treated more than 8,000 patients.
As with most oncology practices, GCS clinics offer traditional chemotherapy services and treat all cancers.
But GCS also offers patients access to clinical trials of experimental cancer drugs and conducts its own independent research leading to the development of new therapies that could save lives.
“For the last 20 to 30 years, scientists have been trying to understand cancer on a molecular level,” Feinberg said.
New understanding of how human genes play a role in diseases such as cancer have opened up a whole new world of treatment, he said.
Last year, GCS formed a partnership with the University of Alabama at Birmingham to bring testing for a new gene therapy for cancer, called C-225, to Georgia cancer patients. The company also began participating in clinical trials to test the safety and effectiveness of a cancer vaccine developed by Missouri-based Avax Technologies Inc.
Central to getting new treatments to patients is improving their access to clinical trials, Feinberg said.
Since its inception, one of the primary business focuses for GCS has been bringing the treatments to the patients, he said.
“Most of their patients are very, very sick,” said David J. Rubenstein, a principal with corporate real estate firm The Miller Richard Co., which helped GCS secure office space for its six new sites and six renovated sites.
GCS’s newest office, near Northside Hospital, opened in early March.
To achieve his goal of improving patient access to care, Feinberg developed an early business model for GCS that revolved around a central office. As more clinics were opened, billing and payment collections remained under one roof.
The wheel-and-spokes approach has allowed the company to manage office functions for all of the clinics from one central location, Feinberg said. The company also has a centralized warehouse and centralized inventory management for chemotherapy drugs.
Drugs are delivered on an as-needed basis to each clinic, eliminating the need for an excess supply, Feinberg said.
To cut down on cost, each new clinic is a carbon copy of its predecessors, right down to the placement of chairs and desks. Having a cookie-cutter model for expansion has left GCS with more time to focus on new treatments for cancer.
Originally, cancer was treated through radical surgery. Doctors would cut out the cancer, or remove a cancerous leg or breast. From there, scientists discovered cancer could be more regionally based in the body, often spreading to lymph nodes. Then came the advent of the body-system approach, treating cancer with radiation.
Now researchers are embroiled in a heated search for specific genes that can cause cancers.
“If you look in terms of where we are in cancer research, we have come to the fourth pillar,” Feinberg said.
Gov. Roy Barnes recently announced plans for a statewide cancer initiative, which would put state dollars into the hands of cancer researchers and support cancer centers.