4 impacts of Covid-19 on cancer programs

The Covid-19 pandemic has upended traditional health care operations across the board. This has proven especially tricky for cancer programs given their patients can’t afford to delay treatment and are already immunocompromised. In response, cancer programs have adapted their operations to continue providing treatment.

Advisory Board’s Oncology Roundtable team is conducting surveys and networking sessions to facilitate collaboration between oncology leaders and understand how programs are responding to Covid-19.

Here are the top 4 insights from the networking sessions thus far. We’ve also included implications for suppliers and service providers since Covid-19 not only affects how cancer programs operate, but it also affects how suppliers and service providers interact with their cancer program customers.

1. Core oncology services aren’t slowing down much, but volumes are likely to ebb and flow.

Programs have shifted some in-person provider consults to virtual visits and there has been a decrease in cancer surgical volumes. Despite these inevitable shifts, volumes for the core cancer program services (e.g., infusion and radiation) have remained relatively stable. This makes sense because cancer patients can’t afford to delay their treatment. However, programs are treating patients with existing diagnoses and depend on upstream referrals for new patients. As a result, they may see a lag in volumes before an increase in late-stage diagnoses from delayed care and decreased preventive screenings.

Supplier and service provider implication: Suppliers and service providers should prepare for these ups and downs in cancer volumes and therefore demand for their products or services. Additionally, as providers slowly re-open operations, suppliers and service providers should support cancer programs’ patient identification and education efforts.

2. Cancer leaders are rethinking infusion center operations.

Infusion centers have shifted their operations and workflows to create safe treatment environments. We’ve heard about a number of these adaptation strategies including: setting maximum occupancy levels, creating a separate “fast-track” area for patients receiving injections only, reducing infusion duration, helping patients complete lab work ahead of their infusion, and encouraging patients to take advantage of extended hours.

Supplier and service provider implication: Given capacity limits and new workflows, cancer programs will likely be interested in products or solutions that help improve efficiency and scheduling. Suppliers and service providers should also think through the impact these operational changes have on their products or services if cancer programs continue to adjust hours and infusion length. These shifts provide an opportunity for suppliers and service providers to 1) be a collaborative clinical partner and 2) provide education for programs looking to optimize dosing and duration or even shift infusions to alternative care sites (e.g., home infusion). Suppliers and service providers should also try to gauge whether these strategies are only interim tactics or if their provider customers will adopt these changes more permanently.

3. Cancer programs are concerned about telehealth integration into “normal” operations.

We’ve seen an uptick in virtual visits across the board in health care, and the same is true for certain parts of cancer care. Programs are shifting appointments to telephone or video visits where they can—like with follow-up visits for patients who have completed treatment. However, cancer programs have to be thoughtful about which patients will benefit most from virtual visits, while maintaining high-quality care.

Supplier and service provider implication: As cancer programs shift some of their patients to virtual visits, suppliers and service providers should do whatever they can to ease the implementation process since cancer programs may be unaccustomed to the technology. Telehealth also provides an opportunity for suppliers and service providers to strengthen their patient education and support for remote monitoring and side-effect management.

4. Provider organizations are restricting access points and limiting the amount of visitors.

Most health systems are currently restricting access to the hospital and outpatient facilities through a small number of entry points where anyone entering, including patients, visitors, staff, and clinicians, are screened for symptoms and recent international travel. Cancer programs are also restricting the number of visitors—in most cases programs aren’t allowing any guests at all.

Supplier and service provider implication: These restriction limits apply to sales reps as well. Even though providers are restricting pharma and device reps’ in-person access, that doesn’t mean they want to end all contact. A recent survey from ZoomRx showed that 78% of physicians surveyed want to maintain some contact with pharma reps and 14% of physicians want even more outreach from pharma. Reps will need to be thoughtful about how and when they interact with their provider customers.

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