COVID-19 accelerates telemedicine use in oncology practices

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Mayo Clinic is expanding its technology to provide more virtual care services for higher-risk patients.

As coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) challenges health care systems across the United States, it poses an extra challenge for physicians in the field of oncology.

"Patients with cancer are considered to be at high risk of becoming infected and dying of complications from COVID-19 because their bodies are often already compromised by cancer or weakened due to their cancer treatment," explained Tanios S. Bekaii-Saab, M.D., a medical oncologist at Mayo Clinic in Phoenix/Scottsdale, Arizona.

With these risks in mind as the coronavirus began spreading through other parts of the world, Mayo Clinic initiated plans to manage patients with cancer in preparation for the arrival of COVID-19 in the U.S. "We knew from the start that if patients with cancer were to come into the clinic, they would be at greater risk," Dr. Bekaii-Saab said.

Photo of Tanios Bekaii-Saab, M.D.
Tanios Bekaii-Saab, M.D.

Mayo Clinic had already invested in telemedicine technology at its locations in the Upper Midwest and for international patients, so it made perfect sense for the institution to extend the technology for use with patients who have cancer. "COVID-19 has definitely accelerated our institution's efforts to implement telemedicine," Dr. Bekaii-Saab said.

A key benefit of telemedicine in oncology practices is helping reduce the need for patient travel. "With a move toward more oral cancer drugs, fewer patients need to come to the clinic for infusions," Dr. Bekaii-Saab said. He acknowledged that some patients still need to be seen in person, but it may be appropriate to conduct virtual appointments for routine follow-up or to discuss test results or scans.

"COVID-19 will likely change a lot of what we do," Dr. Bekaii-Saab said, "but it may be for the better."


This article was originally published in Forefront, Mayo Clinic Cancer Center's online magazine, which ceased publication in December 2020.