When the Winship Cancer Institute at Emory University, Atlanta, faced off against the pandemic in the spring of 2020, it opened a COVID urgent care clinic for Winship oncology patients who had a confirmed or suspected case of COVID, symptoms or a higher risk for the virus. The urgent care clinic, located in a relatively isolated bay of an infusion center, facilitated segregating COVID-suspected patients from other cancer patients while waiting for their polymerase chain reaction test results to show if they were COVID positive.
A strict triage system was also employed to make sure that the right patients were coming in to the new clinic and not those who either could be managed safely at home or were clinically unstable and belonged in the hospital, said Caleb Raine, PA-C, an oncology physician assistant and bone marrow transplant specialist at Winship. Raine, who manages the COVID urgent care clinic, shared his experience of “innovations worth keeping” from the pandemic for oncology practices during a panel discussion at the Journal of the Advanced Practitioner in Oncology annual conference, held online Oct. 7.
Telephonic triage was conducted by advanced practice providers (APPs) or nurses using an algorithm Raine developed incorporating COVID exposure with symptoms such as fever or loss of taste or smell. In order to promote consistency in admissions, he made the final decisions about which patients were brought into the clinic for evaluations, services such as supportive care or infusions, or to address cancer symptoms.
Raine said the triage process helped to enhance communication with other clinical teams at Winship. He hopes to preserve a strict approach to triaging in future program development, including a 14-bed immediate care center, projected to open next spring, building on experience with the COVID urgent care center. It will offer services similar to a day hospital for cancer patients but be open 24 hours with more capabilities than urgent care. It will target those with emergent needs or who otherwise might require a trip to the ED and provide care for those recently discharged from the hospital in need of follow-up.
Another conference speaker, Aaron Begue, MS, RN, CNP, vice president for advanced practice providers at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, described a pandemic telemedicine intervention for cancer patients implemented by MSKCC during the pandemic. Prior to in-person contact with the care team, patients were asked to complete a questionnaire on their symptoms using MSKCC’s secure online patient portal, MyMSK.
If symptom alerts reached a critical, color-coded threshold, it triggered a nurse or APP from MSKCC to contact the patient at home, typically by phone. APPs also did remote monitoring, including uploaded data from portable home pulse oximeters. A similar symptom tracker was later adapted for monitoring cancer symptoms.
Some APPs took turns working from their own home collecting data needed for inpatient visits and uploading it into the medical record. This helped to deploy clinical teams more efficiently and accommodate some staff who were at high risk of infection because of existing health conditions or quarantined for positive test results.
“We were able to flex our staffing,” Begue said. Even spending a day staffing a vaccination clinic could provide a break from the intensity of COVID care on the front lines. “All of us are still trying to figure out how to manage staff stress and burnout,” he added, but flexible scheduling seems to be an important strategy.
Early on, things like the crowds coming out in the evening to cheer for New York’s health care workers had a big impact for staff, showing the community’s support. “Later, when public schools were shut down, we worked with two of them to use their outdoor play areas for staff respite – places to sit down outside undisturbed and relax,” he said.
At the height of the COVID surge in New York, telemedicine was an essential component of care, but when it started to recede, Begue found that a lot of patients wanted in-person visits again. “We had assumed that telemedicine would be the wave of the future and cancer patients would love it,” he said. “We still do thousands of telemedicine visits, but they are no longer the majority.”
MSKCC also does remote telemonitoring visits with patients who live in other states but want to come to New York for surgeries or other procedures or yearly checkups at the hospital. But the logistical headaches of practicing telemedicine across state lines include trying to reconcile varying requirements for medical licensing.
Begue hopes in the future that some of these state requirements could be relaxed, which might also make it easier to enroll more people from across the country in clinical trials and encourage more collaboration between cancer centers.
“COVID taught us we have to be more forward thinking and prepared for crises,” Raine said. “In the future we need to be ready for when – not if – the next crisis comes along – although we’re not out of this one yet.”
Raine and Begue did not report any disclosures.
This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.