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Elevating the Role of the ODS: What Cancer Registrars Are Doing at Highly Efficient Cancer Centers

By Michele Webb, ODS-C

Oncology leaders will be hearing the term “Oncology Data Specialist” a lot in the coming years. But what does it mean – and how will it affect your organization? 

This article answers all these questions and more. Not only do we explore the meaning and history of this new credential – we reveal how ODSs at the best cancer centers are already delivering service line-wide benefits. 

Expect to learn: 

  • Why the National Cancer Registrars Association (NCRA) updated the name of this credential  
  • How the role of an ODS can go beyond the registry to positively impact your entire cancer center or department 
  • The tools and support that are required to replicate efforts at the most efficient cancer centers 

What is an Oncology Data Specialist (ODS)?

The National Cancer Registrars Association (NCRA) created the certified tumor registrar (CTR) credential in the mid 1980s recognizing the distinct skill set involved in identifying and abstracting cancer patient data from multiple sources. But as the role has evolved, the NCRA has updated the CTR credential to reflect these changes. 

Oncology Data Specialist (ODS) is that new credential: it reflects the growing prominence of data and data-related skills in the role of a cancer registrar. All existing (and retired) CTRs will now be known as ODSs, and support has been put in place to help them adapt to the change. The NCRA’s announcement cites the “evolving scope of practice of cancer registrars and current professional practice terminology” gesturing toward the vital role registrars now play in providing data that powers the entire oncology service line – as well as the specific challenges that have arisen for registrars in recent years. 

Oncology Data Specialists

3 Challenges ODSs Face within the Cancer Registry 

Almost every cancer registry faces the same problem: how can you manage the growing volume of cancer data in real-time with a limited workforce relying on outdated manual processes?  

The average registrar takes 109 minutes to complete a single abstract and reports 3.8 cases per day.* Worse still, more than 50% of the registries report shortages in cancer registrars - with 58% saying hiring staffing another FTE registrar is a “strong” or “extreme” need.

This leads to three persistent problems: 

1. Registry Backlogs 

Cancer registries that receive more data than they can handle quickly develop reporting backlogs. These backlogs have been exacerbated by COVID-19, with 10 million U.S. citizens missing screenings in 2020 – creating an enormous wave of new cases in the subsequent years. 

ODSs therefore work under constant pressure to abstract data and report cases more quickly – which leads to missed cases or data inaccuracy and only adds to the stress of an already-challenging role. 

2. Slower Patient Care  

Registry data is used for multiple purposes, including analyzing trends in cancer incidence and researching patterns in effective treatment. It can also be used to identify cancer patients early, opening the opportunity for nurse navigation to accelerate patient care and increase retention – and therefore has an important role in patient outcomes.  

ODSs are tasked with ensuring data is not just complete and timely but can be leveraged to improve care. Equipping personnel with the tools to overcome backlogs, and partially automate abstraction, helps your registry remain compliant with State and Federal mandates and supports the longitudinal journey of your patient.  

3. Accreditation Risks 

Cancer centers rely on accreditation from key institutions, but slow reporting can lead to these accreditations being jeopardized. The SEER standard requires 98% of cases to be reported within 22 months of diagnosis, while the NAACCR gold certification requires 95% of cases to be reported within 23 months.10  

ODSs must ensure these reporting time limits are not exceeded, while also maintaining the highest standards of accuracy. Ultimately, this appears increasingly unfeasible for organizations with just a few ODSs tasked with managing an overwhelming backlog of cases. 

As a recent article in the American Society of Clinical Oncology Journal notes: “A registrar cannot possibly review all their cases manually [...] it is imperative to leverage additional tools to extract information for case finding and, if possible, autopopulate the database from identified variables in the EHR.” 

But given that those tools now exist, what benefits do organizations that leverage them actually accrue? 

3 Ways an ODS Can Help Your Oncology Department Become a Center of Excellence 

The combination of a skilled ODS and the right technology to streamline or automate repetitive manual tasks empowers oncology departments to:

1. Increase Research Output

With timely and accurate data, high-performing cancer registries contribute toward cutting-edge research. This can be produced in multiple ways: 

  • Empowering researchers within your organization with more valuable data 
  • Providing state registries with better data to run population-level research
  • Increasing collaboration with other organizations to deliver innovative research

2. Registry Efficiency

Not only does automated abstracting and reporting reduce or eliminate registry backlogs, – it frees your cancer registrars to focus on other value-adding activities that can further improve the overall efficiency of the registry.  

They can use their skills to extract powerful insights from data for leadership and providers or simply introducing new processes that otherwise would take too long to administer – which can lead to cost reductions, lower the registry’s staffing burden, and... 

3. Improve Patient Experiences

Faster reporting enables more timely and better treatment. ODSs provide critical data to nurse navigators and physicians to assess the effectiveness of treatments, develop reliable cost-benefit analyses of multiple care options, and ultimately help your organization become a center of excellence. 

Equip Your ODS Team With Cutting-Edge Cancer Informatics Solutions 

Over 275 leading healthcare organizations trust Inspirata to help them optimize the impact of their oncology service line. Our solutions process over 30 million pathology, radiology, and related clinical reports every year – empowering your cancer registry to reduce backlogs, support research, and deliver best-in-class patient care. 

Want to see how it could improve your registry and oncology service line? 

Request a Demo


*This NCRA report was published in 2011. We are anxiously awaiting the release of the 2024 NCRA report and will update this article with our findings as soon as possible

Tags: cancer research, oncology informatics