Telemedicine in Cancer Care, with Ana María López, MD, MPH, FACP, S. Joseph Sirintrapun, MD, FASCP, FCAP, Joseph A. Greer, PhD, and Karen E. Edison, MD

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ASCO: You’re listening to a podcast from Cancer.Net. This cancer information website is produced by the American Society of Clinical Oncology, known as ASCO, the world’s leading professional organization for doctors who care for people with cancer.

The purpose of this podcast is to educate and to inform. This is not a substitute for professional medical care and is not intended for use in the diagnosis or treatment of individual conditions. Guests on this podcast express their own opinions, experience, and conclusions. The mention of any product, service, organization, activity, or therapy should not be construed as an ASCO endorsement. Cancer research discussed in this podcast is ongoing, so the data described here may change as research progresses.

While most people may think of visiting a doctor to receive medical care, today, technology such as computers and smartphones can connect doctors and patients who are separated physically. This is known as “telemedicine.”

In today’s podcast, Dr. Ana María López, Dr. Joseph Sirintrapun, Dr. Joseph Greer, and Dr. Karen Edison will discuss their article from the 2018 ASCO Educational Book, “Telemedicine in Cancer Care,” including specific methods used in telemedicine, and the ways it helps bring high-quality medical care to people who might not otherwise be able to access this care.

Dr. Lopez is the Vice Chair of Medical Oncology and Chief of Cancer Services at the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center at Thomas Jefferson University. Dr. Sirintrapun is a pathologist and the Director of Pathology Informatics at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Dr. Greer is the Clinical Director of Psychology and a research scientist in the Center for Psychiatric Oncology & Behavioral Sciences at the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center. Dr. Karen Edison is the Philip C. Anderson Professor and Chair of the Department of Dermatology at the University of Missouri Health System, the Medical Director of the Missouri Telehealth Network, and the Director of the Center for Health Policy at the University of Missouri.

Published annually, the Educational Book is a collection of articles written by ASCO Annual Meeting speakers and oncology experts. Each volume highlights the most compelling research and developments across the multidisciplinary fields of oncology.

ASCO would like to thank Dr. Lopez, Dr. Sirintrapun, Dr. Greer, and Dr. Edison for discussing this topic.

Dr. Lopez: Hello, welcome. My name is Dr. Ana María López. I’m a medical oncologist at the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center at Thomas Jefferson University. Today we have a great panel on telemedicine and cancer care. I’m joined by Dr. Joseph Sirintrapun from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Dr. Joseph Greer of Massachusetts General Hospital, and Dr. Karen Edison from the University of Missouri Health System. In this podcast, we will be sharing some key points from our 2018 ASCO Educational Book article, “Telemedicine in Cancer Care.”

I’d like to start by giving a quick overview of telemedicine. Telemedicine uses telecommunication technology, like smartphones and computers, to provide clinical care, to really facilitate access to clinical care. These virtual visits can be in real-time, that is, almost like the face-to-face visits, and the patient and the physician use a video connection, which could be an app. But it could also be done by utilizing what’s called Store-and-Forward. So when medical reports are transmitted, when images, like radiographs, or sound recordings, which might be from an echo, or a stethoscope, could be transmitted, and these are interpreted at an asynchronous time from the clinical visit.

A combination of these approaches can often be used. And although these have been developed to care for patients at a distance, you can image that this can be very helpful in urban settings as well. Dr. Edison, can you tell us a little more about the history of telemedicine and how it might benefit patients with cancer?

Dr. Edison: Of course, Dr. Lopez. Telemedicine was initially created to assist with the care of astronauts while they were in space. But since devices like smartphones and computers with video capabilities have become so widespread and popular, doctors are now finding that they can use telemedicine to benefit patients who may not be able to otherwise make an in-person visit. Teleoncology, which is the cancer-specific form of telemedicine, was first used to help treat patients with cancer who live in rural areas. Teleoncology became a useful way for them to get care from their cancer team.

Dr. Lopez: Dr. Edison, do you think teleoncology as effective as seeing a cancer doctor in person?

Dr. Edison: Yes, and this has actually been studied. Telemedicine is as effective as in-person care, and both patients and doctors are highly satisfied using telemedicine. It also saves costs.

Dr. Lopez: What do you think these different types of telemedicine applications—you see these mHealth apps and wearables—can they help people with cancer?

Dr. Edison: Using telemedicine technologies like remote monitoring of cancer patients is a way to limit the time that patients with cancer spend in the doctor’s office or the hospital so that they can maximize their time closer to home enjoying their lives. With telemedicine a patient can follow up with me on wound care and talk about managing their symptoms without making a trip to the office. I can use telemedicine technologies to monitor my patients’ vital signs, like temperature and heart rate. There are also iPad-based group therapy sessions for young adults with cancer, and even a smartphone attachment that can use digital images to assess the cervix after an abnormal screening.

Dr. Lopez, you’ve done a lot research into using teleoncology for breast cancer care, can you tell us a little about your patients’ experiences using these methods?

Dr. Lopez: Sure. You know, teleoncology for breast cancer care, and for different aspects of cancer care, as you were mentioning, can really encompass the full spectrum of care from prevention, survivorship, to palliation.

There are data for the efficacy, for example, of telegenetics to assess hereditary cancer risk. And with the limited access for cancer geneticists in the country, this is really of great value to communities. There are approaches where telemedical services could be “bundled.” This could facilitate entry into breast cancer care by coordinating timely scheduling, sometimes even same-day. Telemammography, telepathology for the breast biopsy, and teleoncology consultation to discuss the plan of care, all really to facilitate the patient’s care.

At the end-of-life, the opportunity for tele-hospice can facilitate connection to care, timely assessment and intervention, and ease symptom management. A unique application for telemedicine that was pioneered at our institution in Arizona is for virtual rounds, to engage the patient, families, and caregivers in the transitions of cancer care that are critical for patient outcomes. Although most telemedicine approaches serve to bring the patient to the medical team, the concept of virtual rounds serves to bring the family and caregivers to the medical experience and to the discussions that can support care transitions. So as we consider how to care for patients, and to better care for cancer patients, we can also think if there is a technological approach that could make care easier. That might just be a telemedicine solution!

As an example, Dr. Sirintrapun at Memorial Sloan Kettering has used telemedicine to address an important approach in telepathology. Dr. Sirintrapun, can you tell us a little more about this?

Dr. Sirintrapun: Of course, Dr. Lopez. Pathology is the examination of tissue, the mainstay being under a microscope. As a pathologist, I diagnose cancer or determine if the tissue is free of disease. Pathology is constrained historically because of the requirement for the physical presence of someone who is skilled at microscopic examination. There are scenarios where there cannot be enough of these people available to render an accurate microscopic assessment. This absence is particularly true outside the U.S. where there is an ever-expanding shortage of pathologists and where patients are unable to receive a definitive pathologic diagnosis.

I described a specific situation at my institution where there were not enough skilled people at our satellite locations evaluating fine needle aspirations and biopsies for adequacy. This unavailability might have resulted in patients sometimes having to undergo multiple subsequent biopsy procedures or invasive procedures.

Dr. Lopez: Oh, how interesting, that’s certainly not the experience we want our patients to have. How has you worked to change this?

Dr. Sirintrapun: In a nutshell, because telemedicine or telepathology can cut out the need for physical transport and manual handling of glass slides and patient information, I created a telepathology framework to overcome the need for physical presence of someone skilled at microscopic evaluation. We’ve been able to use remotely operated robotic microscopes and microscopes streaming high-definition video to evaluate tissues at other locations and communicate our findings.

Dr. Lopez: That’s great! Thank you, Dr. Sirintrapun.

Dr. Greer, what are some other ways that telemedicine can help patients with cancer?

Dr. Greer: Yes, the change from using paper medical records to electronic health records is a big development. The goal is to be able to virtually link a patient’s medical record with mHealth tools in their home. For example, this could include a camera equipped with secure software to assess skin changes and rashes associated with chemotherapy or radiation, or computer-based interactive tools to assess symptoms related to cancer care in real time.

Also, many patients in rural areas are not able to enroll in clinical trials. Telemedicine may be used to facilitate access to cancer clinical trials by virtual eligibility assessment, consent, and symptom assessment and management. It evens out the access to the benefits of clinical trials between urban and rural patients.

Dr. Lopez: And what about big data? That’s a term that we hear a lot about in the news.

Dr. Greer: Yes, big data is one of those hot terms. Essentially, it means that we can use electronic health records, without any patient-identifying information, to amass a lot of medical information on a lot of people. Then, we can use computer algorithms to find patterns across the population to more effectively diagnose and treat cancer.

Dr. Lopez: Thank you, Dr. Greer. And thank you Dr. Edison and Dr. Sirintrapun. Technology is a tool that may free the doctors to focus on patient care and allow patients to more easily communicate with their medical team. We may see improved coordination of cancer care, lower costs, time savings, early disease detection, and increased access to care, education, and personalized care through telemedicine and teleoncology.

We appreciate your time and sharing your wisdom with us, and we appreciate the time of all the listeners, and look forward to hearing of your experiences as you explore these opportunities. Thank you.

I hope you’ve enjoyed our podcast. To learn more, please view our article online at ASCO.org/edbook. Thank you.

ASCO: Thank you Dr. Lopez, Dr. Sirintrapun, Dr. Greer, and Dr. Edison. Please visit ASCO.org/edbook to read the full article. And if this podcast was useful, please take a minute to subscribe, rate, and review the show on Apple Podcasts or Google Play.

Cancer.Net is supported by ASCO’s Conquer Cancer Foundation, which funds breakthrough research for every type of cancer, helping patients everywhere. To help fund Cancer.Net and programs like it, donate at conquer.org/support.

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