How Is Oncology Adapting to COVID-19?

Gabriel Miller


March 20, 2020

Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

As the coronavirus pandemic escalates in the United States, Medscape Oncology reached out to a group of our contributors and asked them to provide their perspective on how their oncology departments and centers are preparing. Here are their responses to a number of issues facing oncologists in the US and around the world.

Please share your own approaches and experiences in the comments.

Have you shifted nonurgent follow-up visits to telemedicine, either via video or phone?

Kathy Miller, MD, Associate Director of Indiana University Simon Cancer Center: We are reviewing our clinic schedules and identifying "routine" follow-up patients who can be rescheduled. When patients are contacted to reschedule, they are asked if they have any urgent, immediate concerns that need to be addressed before the new appointment. If yes, they are offered a virtual visit.

Don Dizon, MD, Director of Women's Cancers, Lifespan Cancer Institute; Director of Medical Oncology, Rhode Island Hospital: We have started to do this in preparation for a surge of people with COVID-19. Patients who are in long-term follow-up (no evidence of disease at 3 years or longer, being seen annually) or those in routine surveillance after curative treatment (that is, seen every 3 months) as well as those being seen for supportive care–type visits, like sexual health or survivorship, are all being contacted and visits are being moved to telehealth.

Jeffrey S. Weber, MD, PhD, Deputy Director of the Laura and Isaac Perlmutter Cancer Center at NYU Langone Medical Center: Yes. Any follow-up, nontreatment visits are done by phone or video if the patient agrees. (They all have).

Have you delayed or canceled cancer surgeries?

Ravi B. Parikh, MD, MPP, Medical oncologist at the University of Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia VA Medical Center: The University of Pennsylvania has taken this seriously. We've canceled all elective surgeries, have ramped up our telemedicine (video and phone) capabilities significantly, are limiting our appointments mostly to on-treatment visits, and have been asked to reconsider regular scans and reviews.

Dizon: We have not done this. There are apparently differences in interpretation in what institutions might mean as "elective surgeries." At our institution, surgery for invasive malignancies is not elective. However, this may (or will) change if resources become an issue.

Lidia Schapira, MD, Associate Professor of Medicine and Director of Cancer Survivorship at the Stanford Comprehensive Cancer Institute: Delaying elective surgery is something that hospitals here have already implemented, and I imagine that this trend will spread. But it may be difficult to decide in situations that are not exactly "life-saving" but where an earlier intervention could preserve function or improve quality of life.

Mark A. Lewis, MD, Director of Gastrointestinal Oncology at Intermountain Healthcare in Utah: Cancer surgeries have not been deemed elective or delayed.

Have you delayed or altered the delivery of potentially immune-compromising treatments?

David Kerr, MD, Professor of Cancer Medicine at the University of Oxford in England: We are considering delaying initiation of our adjuvant colorectal cancer treatments, as we have data from our own QUASAR trials suggesting that patients who commence chemotherapy between 2 and 6 weeks do equally as well as those who begin 6-12 weeks after surgery.

Parikh: I personally haven't delayed giving chemotherapy to avoid immune compromise, but I believe some others may have. It's a delicate balance between wanting to ensure cancer control and making sure we are flattening the curve. As an example, though, I delayed three on-treatment visits for my clinic last Monday, and I converted 70% of my visits to telemedicine. However, I'm a genitourinary cancer specialist and the treatments I give are very different from others.

Lewis: The most difficult calculus is around adjuvant therapy. For metastatic patients, I am trying to use the least immunosuppressive regimen possible that will still control their disease. As you can imagine, it's an assessment of competing risks.

Schapira: Patients who need essential anticancer therapy should still get it, but attempts to deintensify therapy should continue—for example, holding or postponing treatment without harm (based on evidence, not opinion). This may be possible for patients considering hormonal therapies for breast or prostate cancer.

Patients who need radiation should discuss the timing with their radiation oncologist. In some cases, it may be possible to delay treatment without affecting outcomes, but these decisions should be made carefully. Alternatively, shorter courses of radiation may be appropriate.

Have you advised your own patients differently given the high risk to cancer patients?

Kerr: We have factored potential infection with the virus into discussions where the benefits of chemotherapy are very marginal. This could tip the balance toward the patient deciding not to pursue chemotherapy.

Dizon: The data from China are not entirely crystal-clear. While they noted that people with active cancer and those who had a history of cancer are at increased risk for more severe infections and worse outcomes, the Chinese cohort was small, and compared with people without cancer, it tended to be much older and to be smokers (former or current). Having said this, we are counseling everyone about the importance of social distancing, washing hands, and not touching your face.

Lewis: If I have a complete blood count with a differential that includes lymphocytes, I can advise my lymphopenic patients (who are particularly vulnerable to viral infection) to take special precautions regarding social distancing in their own families.

Have any of your hospitalized patients been affected by policy changes to prepare beds/departments for the expected increase in COVID-19–positive patients?

Weber: Not yet.

Dizon: No, not at the moment.

Have you been asked to assist with other services or COVID-19 task forces?

Dizon: I am keenly involved in the preparations and modifications to procedures, including staffing decisions in outpatient, movement to telehealth, and work-from-home policies.

Lewis: I am engaged in system-wide COVID-19 efforts around oncology.

Kerr: Perhaps oddest of all, I am learning with some of our junior doctors to care for ventilated patients. I still consider myself enough of a general physician that I would hope to be able to contribute to the truly sick, but I accept that I do need an appropriate refresher course.

Bishal Gyawali, MD, PhD, medical oncologist at Queen's University Cancer Research Institute: Queen's Hospital medical students are now volunteering to help with daycare, groceries, and other tasks for staff who are working in the hospital.

Are you experiencing any shortages in personal protective equipment (PPE) at your center?

Miller: Some supplies are running short, though none are frankly out at this point. However, rationing and controls are in place to stretch the supplies as far as possible, including reusing some PPE.

Dizon: We are rationing face masks and N95 respirators, eye shields, and even surgical scrubs. We are talking about postponing elective surgery to save PPE but are not yet to that point. We're asking that face masks be reused for at least 2 days, maybe longer. PPEs are one per day. Scrubs are kept secure.

Lewis: We are being very careful not to overuse PPE but currently have an adequate inventory. We have had to move gloves and masks to areas where they are not accessible to the general public, as otherwise they were being stolen (this started weeks ago).

Kerr: Our National Health System has an adequate supply of PPE equipment centrally, but there seems to be a problem with distribution, as some hospitals are reporting shortages.

Weber: Masks are in short supply, so they are being used for several days if not wet. We are short of plastic gowns and are using paper chemo gowns. Similar story at many places.

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