Technology, Leadership, and the Future of Oncology Practice

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Debra Patt, MD, PhD, MBA, discussed the ways oncologists can ensure a bright future for themselves and their patients through embracing technology.

Debra Patt, MD, PhD, MBA

Debra Patt, MD, PhD, MBA

The field of oncology is facing a critical challenge with a shrinking workforce. Though many doctors and nurses are leaving the field, a recent presentation at the 2024 Community Oncology Conference organized by the Community Oncology Alliance (COA) explored how technology and a focus on work-life balance can help oncologists thrive in the future.

“We talked a lot about how we can work smarter, instead of trying harder, to try to have people balance their work and life by using some technology solutions and staffing solutions to look forward to the oncology practice of tomorrow,” Debra Patt, MD, PhD, MBA, told Targeted OncologyTM, in an interview.

She highlighted some of the innovative ways healthcare providers are leveraging technology to streamline processes and free up time, including artificial intelligence (AI) scribes that can handle dictation tasks and larger language models that can tackle administrative burdens.

Looking ahead, Patt predicts a future where AI becomes as essential to oncologists as Google Maps is to drivers today. The next generation of doctors will seamlessly integrate these digital tools into their practices.

In the interview, Patt, vice president of COA, executive vice president of Texas Oncology, and a medical director of health public policy for the US Oncology Network, discussed the ways oncologists can ensure a bright future for themselves and their patients through embracing technology.

Medical technology: © tippapatt - stock.adobe.com

Medical technology: © tippapatt - stock.adobe.com

Targeted Oncology: What did you discuss during your presentation at the 2024 Community Oncology Conference?

Patt: I was talking about the oncology leaders for tomorrow. Today, we face unique challenges in oncology having an unstable workforce because the American Medical Association estimates that 1 in 5 doctors and 2 of 5 nurses leave the profession in the next 5 years. We have critical shortages that I estimate will be here over the next decade. This is a big challenge for us. We talked a lot about how we can work smarter, instead of trying harder, to try to have people balance their work and life by using some technology solutions and staffing solutions to look forward to the oncology practice of tomorrow.

Can you go over some of those specific solutions that were discussed?

There are a lot of digital tools that we are using to improve care delivery. Some of them are on the clinician side, things like AI scribe services. We have had a pilot with DeepScribe. There [are] also DAX Copilot and Augmedix that have tools to use to have an AI scribe. This decreases the dictation burden for doctors, which is frequently a limitation for them, and getting home, back to their families, to the other things that are outside of their work life that they enjoy.

We also, at [the] US Oncology Network, are piloting a version of ChatGPT, or a large language model, to try to support patients in their practice to make sure that doctors can do things like write prior authorization information or letters of medical necessity, things that take cognitive energy and time, but maybe that we do not need to do so that we could use tools to make it better. We are also using a video service to provide patient education. That way, doctors are able to educate their patients more efficiently and effectively. We have also pioneered some work with triage nurses to try to decrease the time it takes for patients to have their symptoms managed. By having these nurses work virtually and work with a digital platform for patient navigation, we are able to do that more efficiently and effectively and allow everyone to work top of license.

In addition to those digital tools that we're using today, we are doing some work to increase the support of nursing services across the practices, doing some work to invest in leadership development, and having our administrative and clinical teams work in partnerships to deal with the problems before us today.

How do you see AI continuing to influence the oncology space?

I think that this next generation of oncology leaders will practice differently. I think just like when I learned to drive, I drove with a map and I unfolded it and I figured out where I was going to go, and then I drove. I still drive, but now I drive with Google Maps, and it allows me to drive more efficiently and effectively. I think that it is similar to the fact that the next generation of drivers will not know what it is like to drive without Google Maps. They will not know what it is like to open a paper map. They could not imagine it. I think that the next generation of oncologists will use these digital tools seamlessly, just like we use Google Maps seamlessly today.

What kind of advice do you have for oncologists on obtaining a healthy work/life balance?

For all oncologists, regardless of where they are in generations, I think work/life balance is critical. It is not that I do not believe in working hard; I absolutely do, but I think us being recharged and able to have some balance makes us much better at what we do when we are in the clinic each day. That is really important.

I think the younger generation of oncologists know this, and they not only know it, but they demand it in the practice[s] that they join. I think that their approach to expectations to work/life balance is going to be different than it was for my generation of oncologists.

Are there any necessary leadership skills for the next generation of oncologists you could discuss?

I think that the next generation of oncologists need to understand more about the business of oncology. Try to understand some of the economics of a medical practice, because they are going to be asked to do these things, and having a little bit of investment in time, and understanding some basic principles of business and leadership, I think will go a long way into their practice success.

What are the key takeaways from this discussion?

As you look for new practices, as fellows interview for practice, make sure you find a good partner. Make sure that when you join a practice that it feels much like a family feels, and make sure that their infrastructures are in place to provide for what you need to be successful. I am fortunate to practice in a US Oncology practice. We have things like leadership development, and things to help us with business acumen, to understand the business of a practice, but make sure that those things are present so that you will be successful.

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