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Five Difficult Interview Questions Oncology Fellows May Encounter: The Do’s and Don’ts

Written by: Dean Walker
Published on: Aug 11, 2017

To provide trainees with the know-how they need to shine during interviews, ASCO Connection is publishing a series of Q&As with medical recruiters from some of the top organizations in the country, including academic medical centers, private practices, industry, and government.

According to ASCO’s report The State of Cancer Care in America: 2015, 35% of medical oncology fellows have a preference for working in the community setting. If you count yourself in these ranks, these tips will help you nail your answers to tough questions at your next interview.

Dean Walker, Director of Physician Recruiting with The US Oncology Network, shares insight on five difficult questions fellows may encounter during an interview. Mr. Walker does not carry out direct hiring, but facilitates the recruiting process for the practices within The US Oncology Network, a physician-led network of integrated, community-based oncology practices comprised of more than 1,000 physicians.

By Dean Walker
Director of Physician Recruiting, The US Oncology Network

1. What Can You Offer Our Group?

This question is trying to determine if the candidate is knowledgeable about the group in which they are interviewing and whether any research was done to prepare for the interview. In answering this question, fellows will want to show that they’ve researched the practice. They need to talk about the treatment offerings of the practice, the practice’s patient care philosophy, and how, as a new oncologist, they will fit into the practice. Since the question is being asked from the perspective of the needs of a community-based private practice, fellows need to communicate that as an oncologist starting out, they are willing to treat a variety of cancers to build and grow the practice.

DON’T: “I have a good personality and I’m willing to work hard and do whatever you require of me.”

DO: “Prior to our meeting, I researched your practice online and called a friend who is familiar with your group. I see you have several doctors who specialize in breast cancer but only a few who see lymphoma. Although I would see any type of cancer, maybe I can bring my recent training to inform better patient care about lymphoma, and I can build this into the practice.”

2. What Are Your Personal Career Goals?

This question is another way of asking, “What are you looking for in joining our practice?” Fellows need to show in their answer that they are big-picture strategic thinkers. A standard answer is forgettable. Practices are looking for an oncologist with a bigger vision, so being able to articulate that into an answer will certainly be beneficial to any candidate.

DON’T: The common answer is, “I want to be a good doctor and a patient advocate.” Everybody says that. This is not a wrong answer, but there are better, more outstanding answers.

DO: “I would like to establish strong working relationships among my colleagues and referring physicians within the community. I would like to participate in research and be viewed as a community educator and thought leader.”

3. Can You Define Your Ideal Practice Setting or Situation?

This question will prompt preferences for geographic location, the number of offices and hospitals covered by the practice, call coverage, number of patients seen, etc. How this question is answered will reveal personal work ethic and willingness to grow the practice and be a team player. It will also reveal preference and understanding of the differences between academic, hospital, community-based, and private practice employment models.

This question is also relevant since it taps into differences in work culture between generations. Generally, physicians of the younger generation are prioritizing a good quality of life. On the whole, the previous generation of physicians, right or wrong, devoted themselves wholly to work. In my experience, I’ve noticed that the younger doctors are looking for a better balance and are thinking about how the job fits in with their personal lives, family lives, and community lives.

Fellows need to realize that the practice is hiring to benefit the practice and its patients, and they need to give an answer that shows they are committed to both. I would caution though, that fellows need to be honest. If a fellow has just started a family and needs more personal family time, they need to be open and up-front about that. It’s going to lead to disaster if a fellow says, “I can go anywhere and be anything you need me to be,” when in reality, that promise cannot be fulfilled. Fellows saying they can be on call 24/7 and see patients at outer reaches of the catchment area will most likely be asked to do so. Generally, a lot of information about the number of hospitals and patients can be found by doing pre-interview research online. Most medical groups have doctor bios online that list hospital privileges and where patients are seen.

DON’T: “I only want to work in one location with several other physicians who can mentor me. I prefer not to drive to several hospitals to round on patients. I prefer to be part of a large call group so I don’t have to carry too much of the work burden.”

DO: “I understand I must work hard to build my practice and promote myself and the group among referring physicians through innovative brandbuilding techniques such as community talks, peer-to-peer meetings, and spending time in the physician lounge at the hospital. I will work to build relationships throughout the community and establish myself as a trusted, caring physician.”

4. How Many Patients Are You Comfortable Seeing in a Day?

This question will give the interviewer insight into a fellow’s willingness to be a hard worker and team player. Fellows should convey that they understand the importance of being available to take care of all patients referred to them because this is essential to building a practice.

The interviewers are not looking for the answer, “I’ll see 30 patients a day!” But they do want to have a general idea if the fellow understands the economics of oncology. In today’s world, with economic pressures always going up and reimbursements going down, fellows need to be more efficient and productive, which includes seeing higher volumes of patients, but never compromising patient care.

DON’T: “I would only be comfortable seeing eight to 10 patients per day.” While this is reasonable for a physician just starting in a community practice, it’s not easy to sustain a practice at this level.

DO: “I understand that with reimbursement pressures facing oncology and with increasing competition, for example, from hospitals and other physicians, success will be defined by quality of care, efficiency, and productivity. I also understand that I must be available to take care of all patients being referred to me. I am willing to work efficiently and productively while maintaining high-quality care for my patients. As I become more confident and established in my practice, I expect to be a strong, productive contributor to the success of the group.”

5. What Do You Know About The Oncology Care Model (OCM)?

Since the OCM is a new paradigm in oncology, fellows are typically unprepared to answer this question. Even if they’ve heard of the OCM, they likely have not been subject to the broader policy conversations during their fellowship training. And this makes sense—the priority during training is to learn how to treat cancer, and not to become experts in the broader policy issues that affect the delivery of care throughout the country.

Nonetheless, the OCM is the future face of oncology, and if interviewees do some research and come prepared to answer bigger-picture questions about oncology, they’re going to set themselves apart from other interviewees by leaps and bounds. They don’t have to get into the minute policy details of what the OCM is, but fellows need to have a general, high-level understanding of the direction oncology care is going in the country.

DON’T: “I don’t have a strong grasp of policy issues, but I hope to learn more as I grow as a physician.”

DO: “I understand the increasing pressures facing the oncology marketplace and how the OCM will increase the importance of being efficient as well as the significance of building quality initiatives into a practice that provide a win for patients, payers, and the practice. This is especially true in community practice, where reimbursement and cost-containing allow the practice to grow.”

In conclusion, it’s imperative that fellows are well versed in the goals of the specific practice that they are hoping to join as well as the health care world around them. This knowledge will not only make them a more outstanding candidate, but a better-rounded physician.

Published May 12, 2016 online issue of ASCO