Before the pandemic hit many healthcare professionals would acknowledge that digital technology was only being implemented on the fringes of the industry. We know tech has played a part in the way we travel, bank and shop, but the last ten years has also brought an explosion of apps that help us to track diet, encourage exercise and support our mental health. If tech adoption started at the wellness end of the health spectrum, there is now a move towards the role it plays in disease management. But can digital solutions help patients and nurses effectively manage something as complicated as, say, a cancer diagnosis?What impact has Covid-19 had on cancer care?
The delivery of cancer care has seen dramatic changes since the start of the pandemic, including the widespread introduction of telehealth and ways of delivering treatment. In fact, NHS data suggests that during the peak of the outbreak from March to June last year, 85,000 people began treatment with oral chemotherapy tablets in their own homes. For nurses, the reduction of face to face contact with their patients and the move towards remote care brought immediate challenges. But after nearly ten months, many now use technology to enhance their observation and have visibility over a greater number of patients, often agreeing that this enables them to deliver a more personalised experience than ever before.
The pandemic has highlighted many of the key benefits of using tech, for example, access and visibility to rich health data means nurses can have better informed and better timed conversations with their patients. It also enables them to remotely triage and monitor patients in real-time as part of a 'virtual ward', enabling nurses to intervene early when something is wrong, which may reduce complications and save lives. With continued emphasis on keeping patients safe and reducing hospital exposure during this pandemic, these features have likely exceeded the expectations of even the most skeptical about the use of technology in cancer care.
How can digital cancer care help nurses?
Digital cancer care is enabling nurses to deliver the best possible patient experience, with three key areas often cited by both nurses and their patients. Firstly, the ease of communication. Patients are better equipped to know when to contact their healthcare provider and what information to share - which can help them to feel supported, connected and in control of their diagnosis at a time when they are often isolated and feeling vulnerable.
Secondly, accurate recording of real-time data and vital signs - collected by Careology through Bluetooth devices, for example wearable temperature patches and heart rate monitors - combined with the logging of SACT toxicities and wellbeing measures negates patients feeling that they are ‘being a nuisance’ before contacting their cancer team. Finally, this digital record significantly aids patient recall and mitigates the effects of ‘chemo brain’. Nurses can simply look at the data collected in between appointments to find out how the patient has been coping, whether they have been self-managing their medication correctly and more.
So what does this mean for nurses?
For the first time within cancer care, the ability to access data driven insights and information about their patients both in real-time and throughout the history of their treatment is available to these professionals. This means that the cumulative effects of treatment can be understood, and rather than relying on a periodic snapshot, they have an instant window into their patients’ lives and are able to deliver proactive, holistic and personalised care. They can tell at a glance who needs more support - and when - and help to empower their patients to self-manage whilst at home.
The NHS treats 300,000 cancer patients a year but, according to Professor Nick Bosanquet of Imperial College London, at least 60,000 patients are currently in the significant and mounting backlog. He estimates that NHS activity needs to increase by 20 per cent to treat its normal load of patients and clear this backlog by the end of 2021. However, with the escalating situation in cancer caused by the pandemic, the skills learned during this crisis by tech-enabled nurses who can remotely monitor patients at scale and help to free up in-person appointments and follow ups, are going to be paramount in improving the outcomes of as many people living and dealing with cancer as possible.