When the COVID-19 pandemic began, a need to receive medical care remotely spiked among many patient populations, and the cancer population was no exception.
That’s where telehealth came in handy.
Dr. Jennie R. Crews
Medical Director, Seattle Cancer Care Alliance Affiliate Network
“Oncology has embraced telehealth. I think we’ve found a niche where it really is helpful,” says Dr. Jennie R. Crews, medical director at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance (SCCA) Affiliate Network and associate professor in the division of medical oncology at the University of Washington School of Medicine.
While telehealth is no replacement for in-person cancer screenings, those who are already diagnosed with cancer and receiving treatment can conduct their follow-up appointments and even obtain supportive care services online, Crews explains.
During the pandemic, telehealth has also allowed immunocompromised cancer patients to avoid often costly long-distance travel and instead receive healthcare safely from home.
“That’s particularly impactful to vulnerable populations and patients who are hourly employees, where it’s really hard to leave work because any time spent away is going to significantly impact their take-home pay,” explains Crews. “It’s helpful also for caregivers of those patients and for patients who are parents.” She adds that the latter patients typically would need to identify childcare services when traveling to receive care away from home.
At the SCCA, demand for virtual medical care peaked in March and April of 2020, when the pandemic first hit the United States. The SCCA saw about 35 percent of its patients via telehealth. Virtual visits decreased to about 20 percent of all appointments at the end of 2020 and beginning of 2021, and then increased back to about 27 percent, Crews says. Crews notes that this percentage has held steady during the surge in COVID cases due to the highly contagious Omicron variant. All in all, the SCCA has conducted nearly 58,000 telehealth visits since March 2020.
A challenge moving forward is providing care across state lines, which wasn’t an issue earlier on in the pandemic due to COVID-related restrictions. “Now that states are beginning to roll back their policies, that’s put us back into a position of having to get licensure across state lines,” Crews says.
SCAA has surveyed its patients on their satisfaction with in-person and virtual visits and found that those who receive in-person care are only 0.2 percent more satisfied than those who receive telehealth. “They’re neck and neck in terms of patient satisfaction,” Crews says.
“Some of the challenges have been technological ones,” she adds. These challenges persist for some of the most in-need segments of the population, including those in rural areas where internet access is less available than in more urban areas.
Crews says she doesn’t think in-person care is going away; rather, telehealth will simply enhance in-person cancer care.
“The oncology industry has adopted telehealth in an amazing way,” Crews says. “Prior to the pandemic, telehealth had not been widely used in oncology compared to some other fields like psychiatry, primary care, and genetic counseling. We were forced to adapt and make that change because of the needs of our patients.”