Telemedicine has been around for a long time, and most patients are aware it exists, but it’s still underutilized across the board. With 62 million people lacking access to adequate healthcare services in the United States, telemedicine can be a saving grace.
A major pitfall associated with current telemedicine technology is that its application runs deep across some specialties, but is sparsely used in others. In 2017, the largest applications of telemedicine were in teleradiology, telecardiology and telepsychiatry, respectively. Seemingly absent from many lists is how cancer patients and oncology departments can benefit from telemedicine practices.
Offering telemedicine options to cancer patients enables them to receive necessary treatments close to home without traveling each week, or even each day, to a hospital hours away. In addition to common cancer treatments, telemedicine decreases barriers to entry for patients with rare cancers to access specialists.
A patient’s ability to access physician care and knowledge from outside their locality can greatly improve treatment outcomes. Mesothelioma is just one of many rare diseases that general oncologists have limited knowledge of, and this finite familiarity can hinder care. For patients battling mesothelioma, being able to share lung scans with specialists who may be thousands of miles away could potentially prevent misdiagnosis and fast-track treatment options. In this instance, the prognosis for mesothelioma diagnosed in its early stages is greatly improved compared with its later stages when the cancer has often metastasized.
As telemedicine services expand, special attention should be paid to areas that are currently healthcare deserts. The populations most in need of increased access to cancer care are Native Americans, residents of Southern states and nonurban populations.
Currently, 21.7% of the U.S. population lives two to four hours away from the closest National Cancer Institute (NCI) center. Close to 16% of the population lives more than four hours from an NCI cancer center, though the travel times sharply increase based on the specialty required.
It is anticipated that telemedicine will continue gaining traction in the coming years as the shortage of primary care providers grows. By 2020 there will be an estimated shortage of 45,000 primary care providers.
As millennials age, the technologically native generation is expected to fully embrace telemedicine and their employers are following suit. Of those surveyed, 96% of large employers plan to offer telemedicine for employees in states that allow it.
Jumping on the bandwagon may boost patient engagement and improve outcomes for cancer patients across the country.
Rachel Lynch is the press and media coordinator for the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance. The alliance aims to spread awareness about mesothelioma, a rare but preventable cancer in the lungs caused by asbestos exposure. For more information about them, visit www.mesothelioma.com.