The COVID-19 pandemic has had major health implications for people with cancer across the globe, both direct and indirect. But thankfully it’s not all been bad news. The pandemic has accelerated the rise of a new approach to treatment: telehealth. Telehealth refers to the use of digital information and communication technologies, such as computers and mobile devices, to access health care services remotely. Although this method of treatment still has its barriers to access, it has been life-changing (in the literal sense) for many people. If it continues along its current trajectory, it will likely change many, many more!
The telehealth approach has grown in popularity across all facets of healthcare, but because this is The Cancer Foundation, this article focuses on how it is being applied in an oncological setting (i.e. tele-oncology), its pros and cons, and what the future holds. We have applied this approach ourselves through incorporating online self-help guides and risk-assessment tools into our membership offering. These allow members to assess whether they have any warning signs that could indicate cancer.
The Rise of Tele-Oncology:
Telehealth in the form that we know it today, as a method of virtually interacting with patients and providing a broad spectrum of care, was developed in the 1960s by NASA as a way to keep track of the health of astronauts in space. More archaic versions date all the way back to the 1870s when doctors began conducting consultations over the phone (when possible). Since the start of the pandemic, telehealth use has increased by 38X! At the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Centre at Jefferson Health in Philadelphia, the number of telehealth visits over a 5-month period increased from 150 in 2019 to 7000 for the same period in 2020. At Kaiser Permanente, Northern California video oncology visits increased from 40 to 4,666 between 2019 and 2020.
Benefits of Tele-Oncology:
The benefits of tele-oncology include its convenience, time and cost savings, and reduced exposure to germs (particularly relevant during this ongoing pandemic). Imagine if you didn’t even have to leave your house to get to your oncologist appointment; instead of spending an hour in the car, you can spend that valuable time with your loved ones, exercising, or reading a book. For people living in remote areas, this benefit is felt most acutely. Research has shown a high degree of patient satisfaction is associated with the tele-oncology approach, and it’s not hard to see why!
Tele-oncology has also facilitated a greater degree of collaboration amongst practitioners in the field, and it has led to a surge in research on the impacts of remote symptom monitoring and the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology to reduce patients’ stress levels.
Barriers to Access:
Of course, tele-oncology is not full proof or isolated solution. Firstly, there are many procedures which cannot be conducted virtually (a mammogram, for example). For people who are not digitally literate and for those who have visual or hearing impairments, tele-oncology is not a viable option. Access to technology and internet connection is another barrier which prevents poorer communities from enjoying the benefits of tele-oncology, further exacerbating disparities between advantaged and disadvantaged socio-economic groups.
The Future of Tele-oncology:
When cancer treatments are disrupted, even for brief periods, this has a significant impact on mortality rates. While we still have a lot to learn about how to optimize tele-oncology and how effective this approach is in terms of outcomes, it is clear that there are a wide variety of positive impacts associated with it, and this is definitely a field worth investing in. Through the online self-help guides and risk assessment tools that the Cancer Foundation offers to its members, we are contributing to enhancing the accessibility of tele-oncology. Hopefully, tele-oncology (and tele-health in general) will long outlive the pandemic!