The oncologist-patient relationship might be forever changed. Unsurprisingly, COVID-19 has shifted consultations and treatment administration to virtual visits and remote self-administration under oncologist guidance where possible. Everyone assumed the pandemic would be temporary—and they may be right with COVID-19 vaccines on their way. But “temporary” may be longer than you think—until we reach herd immunity. If the pandemic continues for another year or even longer, what could this mean for oncology healthcare professionals (HCPs) and cancer patients?
Having watched the pandemic unfold, and based on our experience and research into “How COVID-19 has permanently changed patient behavior”, we see three trends emerging in oncology: virtual communication, virtual treatment and care, and remote patient monitoring. These trends may form the new normal for oncologists and cancer patients, especially given an extended COVID-19 pandemic.
We believe the demand for virtual consultations will continue to grow among oncologists and cancer patients. Our patient behavior research indicates that about 80 percent of cancer patients are afraid to visit their healthcare facilities for regular treatment. At the same time, an overwhelming majority confirmed that reduced access to their healthcare provider is the primary reason for feeling that their quality of care has decreased (90 percent in Asia, 75 percent in US, 66 percent in Europe). The dilemma is obvious, and the consequence seems inevitable: virtual channels will continue to be used to mitigate this reduced access, and include telephone, email, and video calls.
Within this dynamic, we see three geographic cancer patient clusters. About 70 percent of Chinese patients, about 50-60 percent of Japanese, German, French and UK patients and about 40 percent of US patients would prefer a discussion of treatment and test options through remote and virtual channels: phone calls remain the most prominent channel for at-home treatment support while during the pandemic, there was a clear increase of virtual collaboration tools: video conferences, apps and online chats.
Growth in virtual channel use is likely to be spurred, as oncologists continue to restrict access to their practices. Therefore, oncologists will need to master virtual communication skills to make remote interactions an attractive option—especially while COVID-19 drags on. But it’s not all hard work. Apart from the obvious benefit of limiting COVID-19 transmission, virtual consultations may make patients feel more comfortable than they would in person. Masks aren’t needed for video calls, which means cancer patients can see facial expressions of their oncologists and vice versa. Long term, these virtual channels might replace potentially long commutes to HCP offices and potentially long waiting times.
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Virtual treatment and care
The need for virtual interaction will, of course, increase patients’ and oncologists’ familiarity with virtual communication channels and, as a consequence, lead to the next step: actual practice by phone or video where possible. Here, we see two key dimensions: oncologist-patient interaction and oncologist-oncologist interaction.
In terms of oncologist-patient interaction, individual oncologists will have a global reach they didn’t have before. Patients will be able to access the best physicians around the world, virtually. New business models will be created and could include hybrids of remote and in-person treatment of cancer patients. Specialized health care providers can deliver therapies at patients’ homes with social distancing measures in place, and virtual oversight from oncologists.
When it comes to oncologist-oncologist interactions, video and telephone exchange between HCPs will become more common. Global virtual molecular tumor boards will be available to discuss difficult patient cases, for example. HCPs will work from home more often, increasing the need for peer-to-peer consultation tools when dealing with consultations for tricky patient cases or regular exchange among colleagues (see our research “Driving precision oncology adoption now”).
These changes will give established tech companies and startups opportunities to launch new digital services for HCPs and cancer patients beyond existing videoconferencing technology services.
Remote patient monitoring
Our research revealed that about three out of five cancer patients want their healthcare provider to use technology more to manage their condition and communicate with them (71 percent China, 67 percent Japan and Germany, 59 percent France – whereas only 53 percent in US and 50 percent in UK). While adoption is currently low, it is expected to increase significantly, and the COVID-19 situation has emphasized the need for such solutions.
Remote patient monitoring (RPM) will likely enable earlier detection of therapy side effects, making treatments more proactively manageable over time. RPM will reduce traditional in-patient monitoring, minimizing patients’ fear of visiting their HCPs’ facilities and negating the risks and restrictions associated with in-person consultations.
Oncology has grasped the benefits of virtual care and is unlikely to let go. Unlike many forced changes, though, COVID-19’s acceleration of virtual care adoption might well prove beneficial in the long run—producing better health outcomes for cancer patients. If you have thoughts on this or any related topic, feel free to reach out—I’d be happy to discuss them with you.
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Is COVID-19 altering how pharma engages with HCPs?
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Driving precision oncology adoption now
This Accenture life sciences report reveals the four essential steps to gain widespread adoption of precision oncology.
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