Telehealth has become a vital tool for the care and safety of cancer patients during COVID-19 and has highlighted a variety of sustainable opportunities for the future provision of cancer services in Victoria.

Latest data derived from the Victorian COVID-19 Cancer Network’s (VCCN) Telehealth Expert Group chaired by Associate Professor Zee Wan Wong, Director of Oncology at Peninsula Health, indicates that 100 percent of Victoria’s health services are now using telehealth to maintain appropriate care for cancer patients.

The VCCN survey revealed that around 72 percent of tele-consults are using online tele-conferencing software like Health Direct, Zoom, Skype, Blue Jeans and Facetime; 28 percent are being conducted via telephone.

“Physical distancing practices have accelerated the acceptability of telehealth for both patients and clinicians, regardless of where they live,” said Associate Professor Wong.

“Educating patients and doctors on how to use tele-communications technologies has been quite easily overcome with re-deployment of admin staff and IT teams to support the initiative.

The major barriers for telehealth are related to insufficient telecommunications infrastructure across our hospitals and for some health services, lack of support staff,” added Associate Professor Wong.

Both clinicians and patients seem to be adapting well to telehealth consults, and have quickly come to appreciate its convenience and safety aspects.

Nathalie Cook, haematology patient at Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre commented, “transitioning from face-to-face consults to telehealth has been a really easy process.”

Apart from the obvious time savers associated with travel and waiting rooms, telehealth has enabled health services to reduce foot traffic in the hospitals, meaning hospitals are safer environments in the pandemic, for patients who need to attend for scans or tests.

Significant thought has been given to the workflows and administration of cancer care to ensure that all of the pre-clinical, clinical and post-clinical tasks that need to occur are addressed with the telehealth system. This means that all the usual activity around referrals, pharmacy, follow up appointments is still occurring, but many appointments are now electronic rather than face to face.

Associate Professor Kate Burbury, a haematologist at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre believes telehealth presents some significant and sustainable opportunities.

“What I see off the back of this is that digital health will become core business and result in better patient care, including better access to cutting edge trials and routine collaborative care consults that are inclusive of GP’s and allied health practitioners”, said Associate Professor Burbury.

Evidence of improved access to clinical trials using the tele-trials model has been demonstrated by Alfred Health.

“Things have moved very rapidly in the last three weeks. Out of necessity, our Phase I team has established a functioning tele-trials satellite site in Hobart, and is now delivering complex, first in-human treatment to a Tasmanian based patient,” said Dr Andrew Haydon, Medical Oncologist and Co-Chair of the VCCN.

Telehealth is a method that uses digital platforms to conduct a single site clinical trial. Tele-trials is a model that enables the implementation of a clinical trial across multiple sites, through a partnerships between a primary site and satellite sites.

While there are many benefits to using telehealth, there are also some significant challenges, including delivering bad news and discussing advance care and palliative care planning.

“There is no substitute for direct eye contact, and we’re well aware that the telehealth model is not ideal for difficult conversations,” Associate Professor Wong commented.

“But the VCCN is attempting to address this concern by providing leadership to the cancer workforce on how to be compassionate and supportive, even in a telehealth format,” Associate Professor Wong added.

The VCCN is open to all health professionals working with cancer patients, to provide support and advice on cancer management during the COVID-19 pandemic.

To register to join the network, please complete this online registration form.