Learning that you or a loved one has cancer can be overwhelming at any time, but needing cancer care while America contends with the COVID-19 crisis adds a whole new set of concerns to an already challenging situation..
“Patients understandably are worried about whether their cancer or its treatment may weaken their immune system, making them more susceptible to contracting coronavirus. Many also are hesitant to come to a healthcare facility for consultation or treatment, due to concerns about potentially being near people who are carrying the virus,” notesIuliana Shapira, MD, the Chief Medical Officer of Regional Cancer Care Associates, LLC, or RCCA, one of the nation’s largest networks of oncologists.
The board-certified medical oncologist and hematologist adds that RCCA not only understands those concerns, but has taken several steps to address them at its 28 care centers throughout New Jersey, Connecticut, Maryland, Pennsylvania and the Washington, DC area. In a recent interview, Drs. Shapira and Denis Fitzgerald, Board Chairperson of RCCA, outlined RCCA’s approach to providing comprehensive care in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak – including offering virtual “telehealth” visits whenever appropriate – and offered some reassuring perspective to patients with cancer.
Dr. Fitzgerald, a board-certified medical oncologist and hematologist who practices at RCCA’s Little Silver, NJ offices, said, “I think it’s helpful for people with cancer to keep three facts in mind during these unsettling times.” He continued:
- “First, it is true that cancer and many of the therapies used to treat it can impair or suppress the immune system.The extent depends on the type and stage of cancer, the particular therapy employed and the duration of treatment, and the patient’s overall health, including the presence of any other medical conditions.”
- “Second, oncologists and hematologists have extensive experience dealing with how cancer and its treatment affect immune response. Long before the coronavirus, we were adept at assessing risk based on everything from a patient’s diabetes to the presence of seasonal influenza in the community. Based on those assessments, we implement individualized treatment plans in which the choice of therapies, the timing of when each therapy is given in the sequence of treatments, and the use of immune-boosting agents and approaches,when indicated, all are geared toward controlling the patient’s cancer while protecting immune function.”
- “Third, cancer does not wait. By definition, cancer is a disease of disordered, dangerous cell growth, and time is of the essence in stopping its progression. Fortunately, we have the ability to responding a manner that takes all aspects of a patient’s health into consideration so that we don’t delay or interrupt needed treatment.”
Dr. Shapira added that RCCA has extensive operational expertise in protecting patient health. “All we do is cancer and hematologic care. The only patients we see are those with cancer or hematologic conditions, and our offices and processes are designed with those people’s specific needs in mind.Much of what we do to enhance the patient experience is readily apparent, such as the convenience of being able to park just outside the front door of a community clinic, be greeted by a receptionist who knows you, and quickly be taken to an exam room. But a significant portion of our patient-focused approach goes on ‘behind the scenes,’ such as the rigorous processes we employ for regularly sanitizing every room, space and piece of medical equipment in our offices,” she said.
Dr. Fitzgerald noted that RCCA has taken several steps in response to the coronavirus, including:
- Offering telehealth visits whenever possible, employing easily used technology to enable patients to talk with their physician or nurse virtually. Patients should call their local RCCA office for more information about scheduling a telehealth visit.
- Adjusting patient in-office visits and staffing schedules to minimize the number of people in the office at any one time and to allow for adequate social distancing.
- Ensuring that staff are equipped with personnel protective equipment, or PPE, when providing clinical services.
- Intensifying RCCA’s already thorough cleaning and sanitization processes.
- Screening patients by telephone prior to their visit to ensure that they do not have signs or symptoms of the coronavirus. Upon arrival at the office, patients are again screened at the front door prior to entering the center.
“We will continue to adjust as needed during the coronavirus outbreak to protect our patients, their families, and our staff,” the physician said. He added, “While it’s important to change approaches in step with evolving circumstances, one thing that won’t change is our commitment to providing patients with the care they need when they need it. RCCA’s doctors, nurses, and other team members are here for people with cancer, whether you’ve just been diagnosed, are in the midst of treatment, or have completed active treatment and have a question or need follow-up care. If you have specific concerns, call your RCCA office and we will address them. Oncologists devote their careers to seeing people with cancer through the worst of times, and – together – we’ll get through this trying time, as well.”
With more than 125 cancer specialists practicing at 28 care centers located throughout New Jersey, Connecticut, Maryland, and the Washington, DC area, RCCA provides care to roughly 24,500 new cancer patients and 245,000 established patients each year. RCCA offers those patients immunotherapy, targeted treatment, cell-based therapy and other cutting-edge treatments and diagnostic modalities, as well as access to clinical trials. RCCA is one of fewer than 200 medical practices in the country selected to participate in the Oncology Care Model (OCM), a recent Medicare initiative aimed at improving care coordination and access to and quality of care for Medicare beneficiaries undergoing chemotherapy treatment.