Over the past year, telehealth emerged as a major force, helping healthcare professionals (HCPs) to continue caring for patients through the pandemic. Its continuing importance can’t be underestimated as a force to improve care, particularly in oncology, as we learned at the recent ASCO meeting. 

IQVIA estimated that, over just the first three months of the pandemic, 800K cancer diagnoses were missed, and that, in 2020 overall, 1.07 billion diagnoses were missed cumulatively, for all diseases. 

At the same time, oncology was the hardest-hit specialty in terms of in-person rep access, according to a (gated) report from DRG: As of April 2021, only 27% of oncology reps were back to seeing their HCPs in person. Given the immunocompromised nature of oncology patients, it makes perfect sense that these offices would lag on re-opening.  

But it means that the crisis is multi-faceted: HCPs face an enormous backlog of patients, with less information from brands than they had before.  

Telehealth solutions that understand oncology will be vital. Great strides have been made in the development and availability of easy-to-use, dependable, HIPAA-compliant telehealth platforms. But the industry has the opportunity to go further, creating even better solutions that improve health along the entire continuum of care — from research, to diagnosis, to treatment, to survivorship — and that make life better for patients, caregivers, and HCPs. Moreover, telehealth can assist with the vital issue of equity, which we discussed at greater length in a recent post. 

Clinical Trials
As the pandemic forced patients and HCPs to stay home, or significantly limit in-person contact, digitally mediated clinical trials helped research to continue, even when trial subjects couldn’t come into clinics for in-person visits. They can also open research up to patients who wouldn’t normally be included – improving equity in terms of the diversity of who is studied.  

Diagnosis and Treatment
Telehealth appointments helped continue the HCP-patient relationship, though certainly infusions and other types of treatment had to be paused. And according to a (gated) report by Cardinal Health, as of June 2021, 89% of oncologists say that at least some of their patient visits will be conducted via telemedicine even after the pandemic is over.  

Survivorship 
Survivorship, and quality of life, are becoming more important as cancer treatment continues to advance. Whereas once any extension in life was seen as “enough,” now the field is able to also focus on the side effect profiles, mental health ramifications, and other aspects of care that affect patients. Telehealth can help here, too.  

Access and Equity
ASCO invited everyone to “identify ways to ensure that all patients can access and benefit from the latest cancer advances and high-quality cancer care.” Telehealth is one of the important tools that will make that progress possible, connecting underserved populations and surmounting barriers of geography and transportation. As public health expert, and president of the University of Miami, Dr. Julio Frenk, noted in his address at the opening session of ASCO, the pandemic has been “an accelerator of change” with “both gloomy, and luminous facets.”  

It’s the responsibility of all in healthcare to help make the “luminous” shine as brightly as possible. Telehealth can help patients and HCPs continue to have conversations about their condition, their treatment, their lives, and their overall well-being. It can widen access to research, to care, and to survivor resources. As Dr. Frenk said: “We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to build a better ‘normal’. We owe it to all those who have suffered to apply the lessons we have learned thus far.”