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COVID-19Survivorship

Telehealth Can Help Patients with Cancer During COVID-19 but Does Not Replace In-Person Treatments

When the COVID-19 pandemic began to affect the ability to deliver cancer care to patients, the use of telehealth helped to bridge the appointment gap and continues to play a key role.

June 2020 Vol 6 No 3
Chevon M. Rariy, MD
Telehealth Program Director,
Medical Director of Endocrinology
Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA), Chicago, Illinois

When the COVID-19 pandemic began to affect the ability to deliver cancer care to patients, the use of telehealth helped to bridge the appointment gap and continues to play a key role. During the first peak of the pandemic, when restrictions on travel, business, and socializing were mandated across the nation, the use of telehealth emphasized the maintenance of patient contact with their doctor or treatment facility to prevent a lapse in cancer care.

Research has proved that people in active cancer treatment and those who have had cancer treatment are more likely to have a compromised immune system, and as such, they need to limit their potential exposure to the novel coronavirus. Telehealth is a viable and responsible way to address this need.

During these tumultuous times, telehealth can help patients with cancer practice social distancing as a preventive measure and enable them to continue with their scheduled appointments, while also protecting front-line healthcare workers.

As information and details about how to combat this pandemic change and are updated almost daily, the need remains to adapt treatment and care protocols. This has brought telehealth to another level, where the safety of the patient is still the primary emphasis, but it is now equally important to ensure that patients do not delay treatments and services that require in-person care.

Patients who require life-saving infusion therapy, surgery, radiation therapy, special diagnostic scans, or a procedure to determine the cancer progression or remission should speak with their care team to schedule in-person appointments.

Once the patient has been diagnosed and has a treatment plan, connecting with various doctors, including oncologists or surgeons, can be done via telehealth between in-person care appointments. Patients may also be able to arrange telehealth visits with other experts for pain management, psychiatric consultations, or other services.

It is important to reiterate that telehealth is not for everyone or every circumstance. Patients who are receiving active treatment, such as intravenous infusions, for cancer, and those with advanced-stage cancer, will need to maintain their in-person visits regularly. Patients who are unable to adhere to regular, in-person visits because of restrictions on travel or other barriers, should contact their doctor to determine what options may be available for them.

Below are answers to 5 common questions regarding the use of telehealth.

1. How Does Telehealth Work?

A telehealth visit should be quite simple for patients. Using a computer or a smartphone, you will be connected to a doctor or a healthcare provider who is in one location, seeing and speaking with you at your own location, which could be anywhere in the country. With the proper equipment and a stable Internet connection, telehealth may be used to connect you and a doctor from a hospital or a clinic to you in your home or to connect between doctors in different locations.

2. What Are the Advantages of Telehealth?

Telehealth has advantages in specific situations. A telehealth visit is often more convenient and saves travel time and expenses. It may reduce the amount of time you need to take off work, including time otherwise spent in a waiting room or traveling. It may also provide access to an expanded pool of experts from a variety of disciplines, such as pain management, nutrition, speech therapy, or rehabilitation.

Another potential benefit is the ability to have multiple caregivers or support figures in the room with you during the telehealth consultation. For doctors, telehealth may be an efficient way to see more patients. It also helps doctors and patients to reduce their exposure to infections such as COVID-19.

3. What Are the Disadvantages of Telehealth?

Telehealth may not be appropriate in some circumstances. For example, patients cannot have procedures such as surgery, blood tests, or imaging tests, including mammograms, MRI, or CT scans, remotely. However, telehealth visits may be used as a follow-up to those procedures or to review the results of tests or scans.

Telehealth may be used for follow-up appointments that do not require additional services and for initial introductions to an oncologist or another cancer specialist; however, it is important that patients who need life-­saving treatment and those who need to see a doctor in person, do so.

Although Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA) has remained operational for patients during COVID-19 and has taken every precaution to limit patient exposure, including providing access to telehealth visits when appropriate, the pandemic has caused disruption in cancer care. Many experts fear that there will be a dramatic spike in undiagnosed and untreated cancer cases as an unintended side effect of the pandemic.

Already this year, there has been a 37% drop in cancer care diagnoses in the United States compared with this same time last year, demonstrating a need to reopen cancer testing and screening as soon as possible to ensure proper cancer care.

Nearly 1.8 million cases of cancer are diagnosed every year in the United States, but people who have skipped appointments in the last 3 months are not getting diagnosed. If they wait until next year, such an undiagnosed cancer may worsen, even if it remains treatable; these people face dramatically worse consequences for years.

Talk to your doctor or care team about whether you need to be seen in person, or if a virtual visit is appropriate for you.

4. Do Telehealth Appointments Require Many Electronic Gadgets?

Most telehealth visits can be conducted on a laptop computer, tablet, or a smartphone. You may need to download an app on your phone or computer. In some cases, it is as easy as clicking a link that is sent to you in an e-mail from your provider. For example, patients who have a telehealth appointment with CTCA follow these simple steps:

  1. After scheduling an appointment, patients receive a confirmation e-mail and a call from a member of the hospital’s telehealth support team.
  2. At the appointment time, the patient clicks on a link in their confirmation e-mail.
  3. Patients using a laptop or desktop computer are prompted to join the meeting via a web browser. Those on a mobile device are asked to download the Microsoft Teams app and join.
  4. Once connected, patients and providers conduct their virtual visit.

5. Will My Insurance Cover the Cost of a Virtual Visit?

Check with your doctor’s office or hospital to determine the cost of your telehealth visit. Also be sure to check with your insurance company to see what telehealth services are covered, and what costs are out of pocket.

The federal government has expanded telehealth coverage during COVID-19 for people with Medicare coverage and other insurance companies increased their coverage of telehealth.

Talk with Your Doctor

The COVID-19 pandemic pushed healthcare companies and doctors to increase the use of telehealth services. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, telehealth services were growing rapidly. It is expected that patients who used telehealth services during the coronavirus outbreak will continue to use it long after the crisis has abated.

However, when it comes to life-saving care for people with cancer, telehealth should not be used as a substitute. It is essential that you discuss all your care options with your doctors to make sure the care you are receiving is comprehensive and meets your unique needs.

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Last modified: June 24, 2020

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