June 8, 2021

Cancer patients and physicians embrace telehealth

Video visits and virtual collaboration speed cancer care transformation in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

New tools and technology have enabled doctors to provide seamless virtual cancer care.

Oncologist Christine M. Barnett, MD, noticed something interesting when the COVID-19 pandemic forced her to consult virtually with some of her cancer patients.

“With a lot of patients, I can have a better connection on video than I do in person,” said Dr. Barnett, who is chief of hematology and medical oncology at Kaiser Permanente in the Northwest. “I’ve noticed this especially with patients who have never met me before, and with older patients who can hardly hear me with my mask on. I can actually smile at them on video, and they know I’m smiling.”

Dr. Barnett is part of a significant transition in how Kaiser Permanente cares for cancer patients. Over the past year, cancer care underwent a digital revolution as the pandemic spurred the organization to quickly pivot to providing the majority of outpatient care via telehealth.

“Telehealth isn’t the right thing for every patient and every visit,” said Dr. Barnett. "But it has been widely adopted by our patients, and it’s a very good way for us to keep tabs on them and maintain connections. I think of video visits as a tool in the toolbox.”  

Mishellene McKinney, vice president of cancer care services for Kaiser Permanente, noted that even before the pandemic, getting cancer patients to in-person appointments could be a challenge. “There are so many factors to consider … finding transportation, getting time off from work, and arranging child or elder care. Telehealth allows us to offer patients a choice based on their preferences,” she said. “Telehealth is also breaking barriers for our oncology providers who would otherwise be unable to attend an in-person meeting, whether due to geography or unavoidable clinic responsibilities.”

A ‘perfect storm’ for innovation

Tatjana Kolevska, MD, medical director of Kaiser Permanente’s national cancer program, agrees that the pandemic has fundamentally changed thinking about how to best deliver care to cancer patients.

“Before COVID-19, we were doing 15% of our consultations virtually. While our cancer patients can still come in whenever they want to, we’re seeing that 60% to 80% of patients are now requesting to do consultations by video,” said Dr. Kolevska, who is chair of hematology and oncology at Kaiser Permanente in Northern California.

The pandemic pushed us to reimagine how telehealth can help bring our oncologists even closer to their patients, while allowing the physicians to work together seamlessly.

Detailed pre-visit preparation by medical assistants and care navigators — liaisons who answer questions and remove barriers to care — has helped ease that transition. The increased availability of gadgets and wearables has been another helpful factor.

“All of these changes have created the perfect storm for the virtual transformation of cancer care,” said Dr. Kolevska.

Reimagining collaborative care

Enhanced collaboration between cancer specialists and other care team members is another benefit of this digital revolution. One example is the use of virtual case conferences for many types of cancers. These conferences bring together Kaiser Permanente specialists from across the country to consult on the best cancer care options for our patients.

“The pandemic pushed us to reimagine how telehealth can help bring our oncologists even closer to their patients, while allowing the physicians to work together seamlessly across the entire organization,” said Nancy Gin, MD, executive vice president and chief quality officer for The Permanente Federation.