World Cancer day: Tele-oncology in the COVID-19 Era, the way forward

Teleoncology is of particular help to cancer patients on oral medication, those who require advise on doses, or in cases where supportive care recommendations are needed.

By Dr Vishal Sehgal, 

Change is the only constant. And in a field like science, this can’t be truer. In a scenario like the recent COVID-19 pandemic, changes in the way treatment and care are provided are inevitable. The pandemic put people with non-communicable diseases such as cancer at a higher risk of infections due to their suppressed immune system and also led to delays in consultations and treatment plans. In the absence of timely and optimal care, many even succumbed to their conditions. This is where telemedicine and teleconsultation emerged as a guiding force and gamechanger. They not only helped patients during times like this but also ensured that they get better health outcomes. Even in case of conditions like cancer, the way it is managed and treated without the need for in-person visits became possible with the help of what is called teleoncology.

Teleoncology refers to the delivery of clinical oncology services through digital channels. Although not a new concept, it became central to treatment planning and management in the wake of the pandemic. It helps reduce exposure of patients to any kind of hospital-acquired infections, offering direct benefits to both doctors and caregivers. Many organizations have also laid out clear guidelines for teleoncology services. For instance, the ESMO suggests that patients who are on low and medium priority can be consulted through teleoncology and also defines these parameters.

Teleoncology is of particular help to cancer patients on oral medication, those who require advise on doses, or in cases where supportive care recommendations are needed. It is also an excellent tool for long-term follow-up in case the patients are from remote areas. Teleoncology, in many instances, has helped specialists around the world collaborate for challenging cases. According to a study, virtual radiation oncology services led to greater patient satisfaction. This indicates how teleoncology is an efficient and cost-effective medium that can offer high-quality services in long-term follow-up care for cancer patients. Video-based consultation can also enable clinicians to assess the history of symptoms, risk of exposure, and other aspects and thereby take an informed decision on the way forward.

There are some concerns around using teleoncology as well, the biggest one being accessibility. A stable connection and limited access to the internet are challenges that will need to be overcome. Traditional teleoncology may also not be a convenient option for those with impaired hearing, vision, or cognition. However, the advantages of teleoncology outweigh these setbacks and with the fear posed by the pandemic, the acceptance is only set to increase in the future.

In conclusion

Telehealth and telemedicine are going to be the pillars that drive healthcare in the years ahead. From becoming an important part of treatment delivery process, teleoncology will offer more benefits for managing cancer patients. The benefits are clear and the need of the hour is to improve this field of service by training users and issuing clear guidelines. It is also important for health systems to incorporate virtual care into oncology, all of which will help revolutionize cancer care in India.

(The author is Medical Director, Portea Medical. Views expressed are personal and do no reflect position or police of the Financial Express Online.)

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