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How does breast cancer treatment work in the age of telemedicine?

SBG San Antonio

The popularity and necessity of telemedicine is growing around the country.

The virtual visits seem to be working for minor illnesses.

But what about serious diseases?

For many Americans, heading to a doctor’s appointment no long means traveling to an office.

Virtual visits allow patients and doctors to meet online.

“That’s obviously something we did very rarely in the past and something we do with increased frequency now during the pandemic,” said Dr. Jean Wright, radiation oncologist at Johns Hopkins University

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, nearly half of Medicare primary care visits were provided through telehealth in April.

Just two months earlier, before the worldwide spread of COVID-19, virtual visits accounted for less than one percent of those appointments.

“One thing that I’m very careful about is that we are appropriately balancing the telemedicine visits with in-person visits,” said Dr. Wright.

Dr. Wright, along with medical oncologist Dr. Karen Smith, authored guidelines on how to treat breast cancer during the pandemic.

“I’ve found that this is very anxiety-provoking for many of my patients,” said Dr. Smith. “Many of them don’t want to come in even if I feel they need to come in. Others have the exact opposite feeling and are terrified to miss an appointment even if I feel it could be done during telemedicine.”

Doctors Smith and Wright say it’s about balance – and using technology not only to their advantage but to create new ways of tackling cancer treatment – like starting virtual multidisciplinary clinics.

“Patients have the opportunity to meet with more than one provider using an electronic platform, kind of in sequence,” said Dr. Smith. “So, instead of going to one visit one day with one of the doctors, and another visit on another day with another doctor and then having to wait a few more days while the doctors talk to one another and come up with their recommendation, hopefully, the recommendation can be delivered in real-time and the patient can do it all virtually and a treatment plan can be put in place.”

“So, by doing it in this multidisciplinary context, we all get together and everybody’s kind of in the loop in the thinking and it allows the patient, and in this case, the medical oncologist and the radiation oncologist’s perspective to all be combined,” said Dr. Wright. “So, it’s just a lot more efficient.”

It’s efficient, and it keeps immunocompromised patients potentially away from COVID exposure.

The physicians say telemedicine will never replace the need for physical exams and in-person appointments, but virtual care isn’t going away either.