Miriam J. Atkins, MD, Augusta Oncology
By the time you read this, the Obama Administration will be written about in the past tense. But there were no moving boxes in sight when I visited the White House on January 11 to participate in a discussion about a project that will live on past Inauguration Day: fighting cancer in our communities.
It was abundantly clear that Vice President Joe Biden’s “Cancer Moonshot” initiative was not going to stop. Nor was there any sense the vital work of the nation’s cancer leaders who are addressing disparities in care ranging from access, to prevention, to diagnosis, to treatment would grind to a halt. Indeed, what I heard was that America’s community oncologists are doubling down on how we can continue to make progress towards better, more accessible, and affordable cancer care.
On panels at the White House community oncologists shared their local efforts to close the disparity gap by putting boots on the ground, and going into neighborhood malls and churches to educate people about the importance of cancer screening. We heard about telemedicine and tele-survivorship programs that have successfully connected with people living in rural and remote areas providing them with care. And, we heard about how new technologies like a simple mobile phone health apps are being used to provide information, reduce skepticism, and encourage more people to participate in clinical trials.
Across the varying, practical, and preemptive strategies that were shared that day, it became crystal clear that we all face common challenges in our effort to reach and provide the best possible care to cancer patients in our communities. Those challenges are primarily patient engagement and education; disparities in access to care; navigating the healthcare system; and financial barriers. Those are some of the obstacles that the team of 12 nurses, 10 insurance navigators, 2 nurse navigators, 2 patient account representatives, 6 physicians and I face every single day in our community oncology clinic that treats approximately 200 patients from the Augusta, Georgia area.
But at the White House there was a strong voice of support for initiatives such as the recently launched Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services’ Oncology Care Model (OCM). Currently underway with 190 oncology practices from around the country, the OCM encourages patient-oriented services that address the challenges we face to delivering the highest quality patient care. In return, the OCM reimburses the participating centers for providing these services, keeping patients safe while they fight cancer and away from expensive hospital visits.
The OCM is a terrific first step, providing a model of care that we believe is improving patient care. But we can’t stop there. The U.S. need to advance more public policies that adequately address the challenges our nation’s cancer patients and providers face every day. This includes looking beyond the OCM to new payment and delivery system reform models, and reversing some of the bad public policies and much-abused government programs that have made access to cancer care for rural, poor, and minority patients much harder.
Miriam Atkins, MD is a practicing medical oncologist at Augusta Oncology in Augusta, Georgia. She serves on the executive committee of the Community Oncology Alliance (COA).