Maintaining Cancer Care in the Face of COVID-19

What your doctor is reading on

MARCH 31, 2020 —  Medical oncologist Anne Chiang, MD, PhD, is scrambling to maintain cancer care in New Haven, Connecticut, while COVID-19 advances unrelentingly. As deputy chief medical officer of the Smilow Cancer Network, the largest cancer care delivery system in Connecticut and Rhode Island, she has no illusions about dodging what’s unfolding just 2 hours down the road in New York City.

“They’re trying their best to continue active cancer treatment but it’s getting harder,” she says of her colleagues in the thick of the pandemic. “We have to be prepared for it here.”

In anticipation of what’s coming, her team has just emptied the top three floors of the Smilow Cancer Hospital, moving 60 patients by ambulance and other medical transport to a different hospital nearby.

The move frees the Smilow Cancer hospital’s negative-pressure wards for the anticipated wave of COVID-19 patients. It will keep the virus sealed off from the rest of the hospital. But in other locations it’s harder to shield patients with cancer from the infection.

Around the state, Smilow Cancer Network’s affiliated hospitals are already treating a growing number of COVID-19 patients, especially at Greenwich hospital, right on the border with New York state.

To protect patients with cancer, who are among the most vulnerable to the virus, oncologists are embracing telemedicine to allow most patients to stay home.

“We’re really concentrating on decreasing the risk to these patients, with a widespread massive-scale conversion to telehealth,” said Chiang. “This is something that, in the space of about a week, has transformed the care of our patients — it’s a really amazing transformation.”

If anything good comes out of the COVID-19 pandemic, it will be this global adoption of virtual healthcare.

Across the US border in Canada, the medical director of Toronto’s Princess Margaret Cancer Centre is directing a similar transformation.

“We have converted probably about 70% to 80% of our clinic visits to virtual visits,” says radiation oncologist Mary Gospodarowicz, MD.

“We have three priorities: number one, to keep our patients safe; number two, to keep our staff safe, because if staff are sick we won’t be treating anybody; and number three, to treat as many patients with cancer as possible.”

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