FRIDAY, June 3 (HealthDay News) -- For newly diagnosed cancer patients, appointments with an oncologist are hard to come by -- even among those with private health insurance, according to U.S. researchers.

The study found that in two-thirds of cases, research assistants posing as new cancer patients were unable to obtain an appointment with an oncologist for an initial exam.

The findings, from a team at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, are slated for presentation on Saturday at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology in Chicago.

"Although health care reform is likely to expand health insurance coverage to more Americans, our research shows that even with insurance, patients face barriers when they try to access cancer care," the study's lead author, Dr. Keerthi Gogineni, instructor in the division of Hematology-Oncology at Penn's Abramson Cancer Center, said in a university news release.

"Given the typical pre-appointment expectations for new patients -- which typically involve referral requirements, paperwork and routing of medical records and test results -- both insured and uninsured patients must contend with many challenges that delay care with a specialty cancer provider," Gogineni added.

In conducting the study, the research assistants pretended to be cancer patients either with or without insurance and attempted to call 160 hospitals to schedule initial oncology visits. Although the callers reached someone who schedules appointments 79 percent of the time, only 29 percent of the callers were actually given appointments.

Among the reasons why the callers were denied oncology appointments were demand for medical records (39 percent), inability to reach the appropriate schedulers (24 percent), and referral requirements (18 percent).

The study authors suggested that, as the number of people living with cancer is on the rise, patients would benefit from more guidance during the initial phase of their care.

"Patients who are newly diagnosed with cancer may be confused or frightened," study co-author Dr. Katrina Armstrong, chief of the division of General Internal Medicine and associate director of Outcomes and Delivery in the Abramson Cancer Center, said in the news release.

"Asking them to find their way through the complex process of obtaining imaging studies and other tests or collecting records from another doctor prior to scheduling an appointment may pose an undue burden, and cancer centers should be prepared to provide help with those preliminary steps," Armstrong urged.

Because this study was presented at a medical meeting, the data and conclusions should be viewed as preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.

More information

The American Cancer Society provides insight on what cancer patients can expect during their first oncology appointment.