Cancer Care 'Transformed in Space of a Month' Due to Pandemic

Kate Johnson

April 16, 2020

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

There will be some change for the better when oncology care emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, the most "revolutionary" being a deep dive into telehealth, predicts Deborah Schrag, MD, MPH, a medical oncologist specializing in gastrointestinal cancers at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, Massachusetts.

"In the space of a month, approaches and accepted norms of cancer care delivery have been transformed of necessity," Schrag and colleagues write in an article published in JAMA on April 13.

"Most of these changes would not have occurred without the pandemic," they add. They predict that some changes will last after the crisis is over.

"None of us want to be thrown in the deep end.... On the other hand, sometimes it works," Schrag told Medscape Medical News.

"The in-person visit between patient and physician has been upended," she said.

"I don't think there's any going back to the way it was before because cancer patients won't stand for it," she said. "They're not going to drive in to get the results of a blood test.

"I think that on balance, of course, there are situations where you need eye-to-eye contact. No one wants to have an initial oncology meeting by telehealth ― doctors or patients ― that's ridiculous," she said. "But for follow-up visits, patients are now going to be more demanding, and doctors will be more willing."

'The "essential empathy" of oncologists can still "transcend the new physical barriers presented by masks and telehealth," Schrag and colleagues comment.

"Doctors are figuring out how to deliver empathy by Zoom," she told Medscape Medical News. "It's not the same, but we all convey empathy to our elderly relatives over the phone."

Pandemic Impact on Oncology

While the crisis has affected all of medicine ― dismantling how care is delivered and forcing clinicians to make difficult decisions regarding triage ― the fact that some cancers present an immediate threat to survival means that oncology "provides a lens into the major shifts currently underway in clinical care," Schrag and colleagues write.

They illustrate the point by highlighting systemic chemotherapy, which is provided to a large proportion of patients with advanced cancer. The pandemic has tipped the risk-benefit ratio away from treatments that have a marginal effect on quality or quantity of life, they note. It has forced an "elimination of low-value treatments that were identified by the Choosing Wisely campaign," the authors write. Up to now, the uptake of recommendations to eliminate these treatments has been slow.

"For example, for most metastatic solid tumors, chemotherapy beyond the third regimen does not improve survival for more than a few weeks; therefore, oncologists are advising supportive care instead. For patients receiving adjuvant therapy for curable cancers, delaying initiation or abbreviating the number of cycles is appropriate. Oncologists are postponing initiation of adjuvant chemotherapy for some estrogen receptor–negative stage II breast cancers by 8 weeks and administering 6 rather than 12 cycles of adjuvant chemotherapy for stage III colorectal cancers," Schrag and colleagues write.

On the other hand, even in the epicenters of the pandemic, thus far, oncologists are still delivering cancer treatments that have the potential to cure and cannot safely be delayed, they point out. "This includes most patients with new diagnoses of acute leukemia, high-grade lymphoma, and those with chemotherapy-responsive tumors such as testicular, ovarian, and small cell lung cancer. Despite the risks, oncologists are not modifying such treatments because these cancers are likely more lethal than COVID-19."

It's the cancer patients who fall in between these two extremes who pose the biggest treatment challenge during this crisis ― the patients for whom a delay would have "moderate clinically important adverse influence on quality of life or survival." In these cases, oncologists are "prescribing marginally less effective regimens that have lower risk of precipitating hospitalization," the authors note.

These treatments include the use of "white cell growth factor, more stringent neutrophil counts for proceeding with a next cycle of therapy, and omitting use of steroids to manage nausea." In addition, where possible, oncologists are substituting oral agents for intravenous agents and "myriad other modifications to minimize visits and hospitalizations."

Most hospitals and outpatient infusion centers now prohibit visitors from accompanying patients, and oncologists are prioritizing conversations with patients about advance directives, healthcare proxies, and end-of-life care preferences. Yet, even here, telehealth offers a new, enhanced layer to those conversations by enabling families to gather with their loved one and the doctor, she said.

JAMA. Published online April 13, 2020. Full text

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