A new study released by the Moffitt Cancer Center (MCC) signals a transformative shift in oncology care delivery. The research, conducted amidst the global pandemic, showcased that patients preferred telemedicine over traditional in-person visits, especially praising its strengths in care access and provider engagement. The results, published in the May 2023 issue of the Journal of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (JNCCN), present a compelling case for the expansion of telemedicine in oncology and potentially other areas of healthcare.
Over the course of April 2020 to June 2021, the researchers at MCC undertook a comprehensive survey-based study involving 39,268 patients and over 50,000 visits. The data was unequivocal: patients consistently gave higher satisfaction ratings to telemedicine, with a special emphasis on care access (75.8% vs 62.5%) and provider concern (90.7% vs 84.2%).
“The steady satisfaction levels throughout the study period were a clear indicator of the successful implementation and acceptance of telemedicine among patients,” Dr. Krupal B. Patel, MD, MSc, the lead researcher at MCC, stated, emphasizing the importance of patient feedback in assessing the effectiveness of telemedicine.
The study’s findings echo the internal perspective of MCC. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated the rapid reorganization of healthcare resources, with telemedicine emerging as a viable solution to deliver care in a safe and timely manner. MCC, reacting promptly to this shift, established the Department of Virtual Health, which was instrumental in supporting the successful integration of telemedicine into their healthcare delivery system.
Senior researcher Philippe E. Spiess, MD, MS, stressed the increased accessibility telemedicine brought to patients, “Telemedicine’s flexibility has proven to be invaluable for patients, fitting conveniently into their schedules.” Spiess also strongly urged for ongoing advocacy for cross-state licensing and reimbursements for telemedicine visits to further broaden its reach. Moreover, Travis Osterman, DO, MS, FAMIA, FASCO, an external expert and the Associate Vice President for Research Informatics at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, emphasized telemedicine’s growing importance in oncology. “In the future, oncology practices need to seriously consider telemedicine as a regular care option for suitable patients,” he advised.
However, the MCC researchers assert that while telemedicine has advantages, it’s not a universal fix for oncology care. Critical patient selection is vital, as in-person visits are sometimes necessary for certain procedures and decisions. Patient-specific needs and potential barriers to virtual care must also be recognized. The transition to telemedicine should be patient-focused, maintaining quality of care and patient-provider relationships. The team calls for a balanced approach, optimizing the benefits of telemedicine while acknowledging its limitations, to provide appropriate care for all patients.
Beyond patient satisfaction and accessibility, the research also delved into other tangible benefits of telemedicine. It pointed to decreased travel expenses and minimized work disruptions for patients, in addition to mitigating geographic disparities in access to quality healthcare. In addition, the study’s authors did recognize the challenges posed by digital disparities and the varying readiness of patients for telemedicine. They advocated for the provision of adequate support systems to address these issues. “While we celebrate the success of telemedicine, we must also work relentlessly to bridge the digital divide to ensure equitable access to care,” Dr. Patel added.
The researchers underscored the urgent need for ongoing and long-term studies to assess the equivalence of telemedicine to in-person visits, particularly with regards to care quality and oncologic outcomes. While the current study provides substantial insights, it represents only the first stride in an uncharted territory. A deeper understanding of the telemedicine landscape in cancer care is paramount and calls for unwavering commitment and rigorous research from healthcare professionals, policymakers, and stakeholders worldwide. In light of these findings, it’s imperative for all involved parties to collaborate, share insights, and champion initiatives that drive telemedicine’s optimization in oncology.