“We’ve had to quickly shift gears and adapt to a new COVID-19 world. Our practices have taken every possible step to continue providing quality cancer care, safely. Because cancer does not stop for even a global pandemic, and neither does the need of cancer patients to get treated.”
Patients with cancer represent a specific group of individuals facing unique challenges during the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, particularly those patients who cannot put their treatment on hold. Creative solutions are necessary to strengthen the provider-patient relationship during the pandemic, said American Oncology Network (AON) in a press release.
“We’ve had to quickly shift gears and adapt to a new COVID-19 world. Our practices have taken every possible step to continue providing quality cancer care, safely,” Steven Swart, regional senior vice president, AON, told Targeted Oncology. “Because cancer does not stop for even a global pandemic, and neither does the need of cancer patients to get treated.”
Oncology practices are essential, but centers and institutions have needed to adapt to new protocols during the stay-at-home and social distancing orders to maintain continuity of care for patients with cancer. Providers at AON have deferred non-critical visits, such as 6-month or annual follow-ups. However, they are continuing to see patients who are currently undergoing therapy or are newly diagnosed patients.
Telehealth has rapidly evolved to combat the challenge of limiting patients on-site at oncology practices during the COVID-19 pandemic as remote patient appointments has become a necessity. Following the end of the pandemic, telehealth is expected to remain popular, according to AON.
While the larger practices are having positive experiences with telehealth and have quickly adapted to the new approach for managing their patients, some community oncology practices, particularly those that are smaller and independent, do not have the IT expertise, bandwidth, or technology to implement telehealth as efficiently. However, AON has been able to offer virtual appointments to their patients with more than 130 providers in AON’s growing network. All locations are conducting virtual visits via telehealth daily.
The implementation of telehealth across oncology practices is only 1 strategy AON providers have adapted due to COVID-19 to continue providing optimal care to their patients. While some patients may be able to convert to virtual visits, many do still have to come into the clinic to receive treatment.
Prior to visiting the clinic, patients are evaluated to determine if they may have come in contact with COVID-19 or are potentially infected. They are assessed for symptoms associated with the virus, such as fever, cough, and shortness of breath, and are also required to wear a mask upon entry of the clinic.
In Columbus, Ohio, a community practice screens patients for symptoms in a tent outside the facility prior to any visits. Staff members also record their own temperatures daily, both before and after each shift, to determine whether they are safe to be in the clinic. Visitors are not able to come inside the clinic at this time as well to prevent the further spread of the virus in the clinic.
“I think we’re all kind of feeling our way through the darkness, and it’s especially affecting clinical research,” said Timothy D. Moore, MD, from Zangmeister Cancer Center in Columbus, Ohio, in an interview with Targeted Oncology where he discussed the changes he’s observed at his institution. “It sounds like [procedures are on a] state by state [basis]; we’re paranoid in Ohio. We’re instituting the restrictions, whereas in other states, I don’t see the same level of paranoia.”
While oncology practices are challenges by an industry shortage, AON has ensured all practices have the necessary supplies to keep their facilities clean and patients safe. Due to the lack of pre-packaged disinfectant wipes, some practices are utilized paper towels with FDA-approved cleaning solvents to overcome these barriers.
To meet the emotional and mental needs of patients with cancer, triage nurses and social workers are connecting with patients suffering from depression or struggles with the isolation caused by social distancing measures mandated in response to COVID-19. AON focuses on improving patient care with every decision they make.
AON says their patients are at the center of everything they do as patients need them now more than ever. AON is taking every step possible to provide compassionate and safe care to their patients with cancer.
Addressing Oncology Care Continuity During a Public Health Crisis [news release]. Fort Myers, FL: American Oncology Network; May 4, 2020. https://bit.ly/2WJASkE. Accessed May 11, 2020.