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Telemedicine: Reshaping the Future of Cancer Care

Publication: Austin Medical Times, Houston Medical Times

As our communities continue to adjust to social distancing, life looks a little different. Telemedicine provides an alternative as patients can meet with their provider, when clinically appropriate, without leaving home. Lakshmi Balasubramanian, M.D., medical oncologist at Texas Oncology–Cedar Park, and Gury Doshi, M.D., medical oncologist at Texas Oncology–Houston Memorial City, discuss how COVID-19 has triggered a rapid rise in virtual appointments that will reshape and enhance the way patients receive cancer care.

As our communities continue to adjust to social distancing, life looks a little different. What hasn’t changed for Texans living with cancer is the critical care required to fight their illness. Appointments are a necessity, whether patients are newly diagnosed, currently in active treatment, or in need of follow-up care.

For some cancer patients, the risk of leaving home during the COVID-19 pandemic is worrisome, even to an in-clinic appointment, particularly for those with weakened immune systems or who live in communities at risk. Telemedicine provides an alternative as patients can meet with their provider, when clinically appropriate, without leaving home. 

While telemedicine isn’t new, COVID-19 has triggered a rapid rise in virtual appointments that will reshape and enhance the way patients receive cancer care. 

How Telemedicine Works
The process healthcare providers follow for telemedicine appointments may differ slightly, but the concept is generally the same. Through a video conferencing service on a mobile phone or computer, providers and their care team members can conduct appointments, securely share files, review imaging and laboratory data, and engage with patients and their families. 

The virtual patient experience enables providers to evaluate patients who are at risk for infections without bringing them into the clinic. Providers continue to actively follow patient progress while reducing risk of exposure to illness for patients and staff. It’s especially useful to some cancer patients and providers while dealing with COVID-19, but the benefits of telemedicine go beyond its use during the pandemic. 

Broadening the Spectrum of Care
Telemedicine can be helpful with more than routine appointments and follow-up care. Patients can connect directly with providers who offer highly specialized care, even if they live many miles away from the clinic. This also provides patients wider access to other Texas Oncology disease experts and information about alternative or novel treatments and clinical trials. 

For example, a patient in a rural part of the state may be a candidate for a clinical trial or specialty treatment offered at a clinic far from the patient’s home, such as brain tumor specialists based in Austin. A telemedicine consultation enables the physician and patient to determine whether the trial or treatment is a fit before the patient travels a long distance for an in-person appointment. This can be life-changing for patients in many areas of Texas where specialty healthcare is limited. 

It’s important to note that telemedicine does not eliminate the need for patients to travel for some aspects of treatment or in-person appointments. High-touch, hands-on care is necessary to treat cancer. Rather, telemedicine may be beneficial during certain phases of a patient’s cancer treatment plan while other phases will require regular, in-person appointments, such as when treatment needs to be administered. The purpose of telemedicine is to augment high quality, personal cancer care – not to replace it. 

Reimagining the Patient Experience
Physicians and those in the medical field are constantly evaluating how to enhance the patient experience. The positive impact access to telemedicine has on patients, their families, and their providers is pivotal. Uninterrupted care is reassuring anytime of year, and particularly as we navigate what’s next for safely and effectively managing and delivering healthcare.

I’m proud to work for a network of physicians that not only embraces the potential of telemedicine but evolves and expands its services to ensure patients compromise nothing – even during a global pandemic. Of the many challenges COVID-19 brought with it, I’m optimistic that telemedicine is a benefit that will be with us for years to come.

Lakshmi Balasubramanian, M.D., is a medical oncologist at Texas Oncology–Cedar Park, 1401 Medical Pkwy., Building C, Suite 200, in Cedar Park, Texas.

Gury Doshi, M.D., is a medical oncologist at Texas Oncology – Houston Medical City, 925 Gessner Road, Suite 550, in Houston, Texas.

This article appeared in the June edition of:

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