Want to Keep Cancer Patients and Providers Safe During the Pandemic? Here's How

Andrew D. Bowser

April 21, 2020

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

With careful review and some changes, cancer centers can provide effective care during the COVID-19 pandemic without sacrificing the safety of patients, caregivers, and health care workers, according to the authors of a special feature article in the Journal of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network.

Prescreening, telemedicine, and limiting procedures top the authors’ list of 10 recommendations for ensuring patient safety in U.S. oncology practices. Assuring appropriate personal proctective equipment (PPE), encouraging telecommuting, and providing wellness/stress management are a few of the ways to look out for health care worker safety during the crisis.

These recommendations were drafted to provide guidance during the rapidly evolving global pandemic that, in some cases, has deluged health care delivery systems and strained the ability of providers to assure safe and effective care, said lead author Pelin Cinar, MD, of the Hellen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of California, San Francisco.

"I think we have been so overwhelmed that sometimes it’s difficult to get organized in our thought processes," Dr. Cinar said in an interview. "So this [article] was really trying to provide some structure to each of the different steps that we should be addressing at minimum."

Screening Patients

Prescreening systems are a critical first step to ensure cancer centers are helping control community spread of the virus, according to the article. Whether done by phone or online, prescreening 1-2 days before a patient’s visit can help identify COVID-19 symptoms and exposure history, guiding whether patients need to be evaluated, monitored, or referred to an ED.

Next, screening clinics can help ensure cancer patients with COVID-19 symptoms are evaluated and tested in a unit with dedicated staff, according to the article.

"If symptomatic patients present to the cancer center for treatment after a negative prescreening assessment, they must be provided with a mask and directed to a screening clinic for evaluation and potential testing before moving forward with any cancer-directed therapy," the article states.

Telemedicine and Treatment

Telemedicine visits should be done whenever possible to avoid in-person visits, according to the article. Dr. Cinar said that her center, like other cancer centers, has seen a major uptick in these visits, which are typically done over video. In February, there were a total of 232 video visits at her center, which jumped to 1,702 in March, or an approximate 600% increase.

"Even though we had a relatively robust presence [before the pandemic], we still weren’t at a level where we are now," Dr. Cinar said.

When it comes to cancer treatment, surgeries and procedures should be limited to essential or urgent cases, and, if possible, chemotherapy and systemic therapy regimens can be modified to allow for fewer visits to the cancer center or infusion center, according to the article.

Transitions to outpatient care can help further reduce the need for in-person visits, while intervals between scans can be increased, or biochemical markers can be used instead of scans.

Protecting Providers

Health care workers providing cancer care should be assured appropriate PPE, and websites or other centralized resources should be in place to make sure workers are aware of current PPE guidelines and changes in workflow, according to the article.

The authors note that daily screening tools or temperature checks of symptomatic workers can help decrease the risk of exposure to others. The authors also recommend establishing clear rules for when health care workers with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 should be staying at home and returning to the job.

Telecommuting should be encouraged, with limited staff participating in onsite rotations to further reduce exposure risks, the article states.

Anxiety, insomnia, and distress have been reported among frontline health care workers managing patients with COVID-19, according to the article, which recommends wellness and stress management resources be available as an "invaluable resource" in cancer centers.

"We have to take care of ourselves to be able to take care of others," Dr. Cinar said. "With PPE, you’re physically protecting yourself, while self-care, stress management, and wellness are also a big component of protecting ourselves."

The report by Dr. Cinar and colleagues was an invited article from the NCCN Best Practices Committee. One coauthor reported relationships with Abbvie, Adaptive Biotechnologies, Aduro, and several other companies. Dr. Cinar and the remaining authors said they had no relevant conflicts of interest.

SOURCE: Cinar P et al. J Natl Compr Canc Netw. 2020 Apr 15. doi: 10.6004/jnccn.2020.7572.

This story originally appeared on MDedge.com.


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