The COVID-19 pandemic has severely impacted the way clinical teams work around the world. And healthcare professionals have shown themselves to be among the greatest heroes of our time. As someone who works in a medical technology organisation focused on helping clinicians treat cancer — Varian Medical Systems — I have been truly inspired by the many creative adaptations that treatment centres put in place to make sure that the most vulnerable cancer patients could still receive treatment.
Between April and June of 2020, Varian had the opportunity to sponsor a series of online webinars that explicitly dealt with ensuring cancer care during these challenging times. In these webinars, some very insightful, creative, and wonderful examples were discussed. Based on these examples, I would like to highlight three core themes that have greatly contributed to overcoming some of the challenges brought along by this pandemic.
First, and where appropriate, it was key to find alternative solutions to surgeries. Second, many healthcare facilities switched to remote solutions to limit potential patient exposure. Third, clinical teams from across specialties set up great methods to connect with each other and to share knowledge and best practices. I would like to briefly describe what this meant in practice.
Providing alternatives to surgeries
Surgical teams around the world were faced with limited access to operating rooms and personal protective equipment. All of a sudden, providing the conventional standard of care was not possible anymore. The risk of exposing patients to COVID-19 during surgery was just too high.
We have learned that, as a response, radiation oncologists and surgical oncologists in treatment centres across the globe took a close look at their patients and assessed – together – what the best individual solution for a non-surgical alternative could be. Frequently, radiotherapy and radiosurgery were these preferred alternatives.
Adopting telemedicine to reduce personal contact
Another trend that caught on fast was the widespread adoption of telemedicine. This helps minimise patient travel to the cancer centre without interrupting the treatment. This trend is extremely important, now and in the future, particularly for those cancer patients in rural and regional Australia.
This new practice not only limits travel time, it also reduces the exposure of often immunosuppressed cancer patients to viruses. Throughout the pandemic, we have seen more and more hospitals and treatment centres switch to telephone and/or video consultations.
We were surprised to learn that many elderly patients were very open to using mobile phone applications when it came to managing their treatment schedules or their symptoms.
Sharing knowledge and best practices
The COVID-19 pandemic also gave rise, for many, to greater inter-institutional sharing and collaboration. We have seen local, regional, national, and international networks emerge that aim to foster knowledge exchange. I had the chance to listen into a couple of network discussions, and it is just so motivating and inspiring to hear how healthcare professionals are openly sharing their challenges and successes when it comes to ensuring that cancer patients are receiving their treatment.
It is often said that necessity is the mother of invention, and that certainly appears to be true, when it comes to how cancer care centres have been adapting in order to treat patients during the COVID-19 pandemic. It strikes me that all this innovation — most of which involves enhanced connectivity and collaboration between doctors and their patients, and between medical specialists caring for patients — constitutes a benefit that has come out of a bad situation.
Hopefully some of this activity will be sustained beyond the acute emergency and become part of standard operating procedures.