By Ted Okon
I don’t have to tell anyone that the novel coronavirus has caused an unprecedented global crisis. However, with attention rightfully so on COVID-19, and the strain on hospitals and front-line clinical staff, what you may not realize is the impact of this devastating health event on patients with cancer and their providers.
Due to the disease and treatment, patients with cancer are immunocompromised, and also, because on average they tend to be older, are extremely susceptible to COVID-19. Their oncologists, nurses, and clinical staff are tasked with trying to manage patients in this new locked-down world, while keeping themselves and their facilities COVID-19 free. Thankfully, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has provided a veritable lifeline to patients that will literally save countless lives by cutting through the red tape and allowing providers to use telehealth in an unprecedented manner.
CMS’ expansion of telehealth in terms of how oncology providers can use it to manage their patients is nothing short of dramatic and lifesaving. This week, I heard from a community oncologist in Oregon who has been able to treat an 81-year-old patient with a new diagnosis of acute myeloid leukemia using telehealth. The patient is being managed primarily as an outpatient, with labs drawn at his residence center. Weekly physician-patient telehealth visits are allowing the oncologist to keep close tabs on the patient’s health and cancer progression. I heard from a practice in Texas where one of their oncologists teamed up with a liver specialist to coordinate care via telehealth visits for a patient who would have had to travel 266 miles roundtrip for office visits.
We may be able to effectively shut the country down in the face of this crisis, but, unfortunately, cancer cannot be shut down. Fortunately, with over half of Americans with cancer being treated by independent community oncology practices, cancer will not get the better of us as COVID-19 rages. Armed with CMS Administrator Seema Verma’s expansive new telehealth tool, oncologists are able to manage their patients, with the goal of prioritizing treatment and keeping them out of the hospital environment, whether that be in the emergency room or hospitalized. Under the new CMS telehealth expansion, providers are able to furnish 80 more services via telehealth. As the providers of cancer care to the majority of cancer patients in America, it is crucial that community oncology practices stay open and active for patients as cancer and cancer care does not stop during this time of national emergency.
I applaud CMS for especially considering the needs of rural and low-income patients when cutting through the telehealth red tape. Clinicians can now evaluate patients who have audio-only phone systems, a major leap forward that eases the burden on patients who do not have access to, or cannot operate, more advanced technology. In an unprecedented crisis, unprecedented actions like these keep care providers and patients safe while maintaining continuous treatment for cancer and other life-threatening diseases.
With an understandable focus on the doom and gloom of COVID-19, community oncology practices must charge forward ensuring that their patients are safely managed and treated. They can’t stop because cancer won’t stop. Fortunately, telehealth is proving to be a valuable tool in their arsenal and is already making important life-saving differences.
Ted Okon is executive director of the Community Oncology Alliance. Learn more at www.CommunityOncology.org.