Using Telehealth to Deliver Palliative Care to Cancer Patients

Alan P. Lyss, MD

November 18, 2020

Traditional delivery of palliative care to outpatients with cancer is associated with many challenges.

Telehealth can eliminate some of these challenges but comes with issues of its own, according to results of the REACH PC trial.

Jennifer S. Temel, MD, of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, discussed the use of telemedicine in palliative care, including results from REACH PC, during an educational session at the ASCO Virtual Quality Care Symposium 2020.

Temel noted that, for cancer patients, an in-person visit with a palliative care specialist can cost time, induce fatigue, and increase financial burden from transportation and parking expenses.

For caregivers and family, an in-person visit may necessitate absence from family and/or work, require complex scheduling to coordinate with other office visits, and result in additional transportation and/or parking expenses.

For health care systems, to have a dedicated palliative care clinic requires precious space and financial expenditures for office personnel and other resources.

These issues make it attractive to consider whether telehealth could be used for palliative care services.

Scarcity of Palliative Care Specialists

In the United States, there is roughly 1 palliative care physician for every 20,000 older adults with a life-limiting illness, according to research published in Annual Review of Public Health in 2014.

In its 2019 state-by-state report card , the Center to Advance Palliative Care noted that only 72% of U.S. hospitals with 50 or more beds have a palliative care team.

For patients with serious illnesses and those who are socioeconomically or geographically disadvantaged, palliative care is often inaccessible.

Inefficiencies in the current system are an additional impediment. Palliative care specialists frequently see patients during a portion of the patient's routine visit to subspecialty or primary care clinics. This limits the palliative care specialist's ability to perform comprehensive assessments and provide patient-centered care efficiently.

Special Considerations Regarding Telehealth for Palliative Care

As a specialty, palliative care involves interactions that could make the use of telehealth problematic. For example, conveyance of interest, warmth, and touch are challenging or impossible in a video format.

Palliative care specialists engage with patients regarding relatively serious topics such as prognosis and end-of-life preferences. There is uncertainty about how those discussions would be received by patients and their caregivers via video.

Furthermore, there are logistical impediments such as prescribing opioids with video or across state lines.

Despite these concerns, the ENABLE study showed that supplementing usual oncology care with weekly (transitioning to monthly) telephone-based educational palliative care produced higher quality of life and mood than did usual oncology care alone. These results were published in JAMA in 2009.

REACH PC Study Demonstrates Feasibility of Telehealth Model

Temel described the ongoing REACH PC trial in which palliative care is delivered via video visits and compared with in-person palliative care for patients with advanced non–small cell lung cancer.

The primary aim of REACH PC is to determine whether telehealth palliative care is equivalent to traditional palliative care in improving quality of life as a supplement to routine oncology care.

Currently, REACH PC has enrolled 581 patients at its 20 sites, spanning a geographically diverse area. Just over half of patients approached about REACH PC agreed to enroll in it. Ultimately, 1,250 enrollees are sought.

Among patients who declined to participate, 7.6% indicated "discomfort with technology" as the reason. Most refusals were due to lack of interest in research (35.1%) and/or palliative care (22.9%).

Older adults were prominent among enrollees. More than 60% were older than 60 years of age, and more than one-third were older than 70 years.

Among patients who began the trial, there were slightly more withdrawals in the telehealth participants, in comparison with in-person participants (13.6% versus 9.1%).

When palliative care clinicians were queried about video visits, 64.3% said there were no challenges. This is comparable to the 65.5% of clinicians who had no challenges with in-person visits.

When problems occurred with video visits, they were most frequently technical (19.1%). Only 1.4% of clinicians reported difficulty addressing topics that felt uncomfortable over video, and 1.5% reported difficulty establishing rapport.

The success rates of video and in-person visits were similar. About 80% of visits accomplished planned goals.

"Webside" Manner

Strategies such as reflective listening and summarizing what patients say (to verify an accurate understanding of the patient's perspective) are key to successful palliative care visits, regardless of the setting.

For telehealth visits, Temel described techniques she defined as "webside manner," to compensate for the inability of the clinician to touch a patient. These techniques include leaning in toward the camera, nodding, and pausing to be certain the patient has finished speaking before the clinician speaks again.

Is Telehealth the Future of Palliative Care?

I include myself among those oncologists who have voiced concern about moving from face-to-face to remote visits for complicated consultations such as those required for palliative care. Nonetheless, from the preliminary results of the REACH PC trial, it appears that telehealth could be a valuable tool.

To minimize differences between in-person and remote delivery of palliative care, practical strategies for ensuring rapport and facilitating a trusting relationship should be defined further and disseminated.

In addition, we need to be vigilant for widening inequities of care from rapid movement to the use of technology (i.e., an equity gap). In their telehealth experience during the COVID-19 pandemic, investigators at Houston Methodist Cancer Center found that patients declining virtual visits tended to be older, lower-income, and less likely to have commercial insurance. These results were recently published in JCO Oncology Practice.

For the foregoing reasons, hybrid systems for palliative care services will probably always be needed.

Going forward, we should heed the advice of Alvin Toffler in his book Future Shock. Mr. Toffler said, "The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn."

The traditional model for delivering palliative care will almost certainly need to be reimagined and relearned.

Temel disclosed institutional research funding from Pfizer.

Lyss was a community-based medical oncologist and clinical researcher for more than 35 years before his recent retirement. His clinical and research interests were focused on breast and lung cancers, as well as expanding clinical trial access to medically underserved populations. He is based in St. Louis. He has no conflicts of interest.

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.


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