Featured Speaker Series

How virtual care will fit in the future of cancer care

A doctor speaks over the computer.
Written by Idella Sturino

Looking back over the past three years, it’s remarkable how far virtual health care has come.

While telemedicine already existed to some extent prior to 2020 – whether through pilot projects or routine phone consultations with a doctor or registered nurse – the pandemic accelerated the practice. Physical distancing requirements forced many care providers, including specialists, to shift more of their appointments to virtual platforms.

While pandemic restrictions are now lifted, many patients and care providers see virtual care as part of the future of health care because of the convenience and opportunity for interprofessional collaboration that it provides.

This is the case at Sunnybrook’s Odette Cancer Centre, where virtual care continues to be offered as part of the overall network of quality patient care – even in surgeons’ offices.

At the latest Sunnybrook Speaker Series, Dr. Calvin Law, Chief of the Odette Cancer Centre, spoke about why this is the case. He outlined why virtual care is especially beneficial when it comes to complex cancer surgeries.

In Ontario, high intensity cancer surgeries such as those for liver and pancreatic cancer are treated by teams of experts organized into regionalized ‘centres of excellence’. These allow doctors, nurses, and specialists from across the province’s health-care system to share data like medical images and lab results as they map out a patient’s care plan. This model has been found to help improve patient outcomes.

However, because most of these regionalized centres are based in southern Ontario, access has been challenging for people living in other parts of the province or even surrounding areas.

“Although a lot of the population is concentrated in the southern part of Ontario, that’s still a lot of kilometres for people to travel even in that area,” said Dr. Law.

That’s where virtual cancer care comes in.

“What’s changed is we’ve made the journey a little bit easier,” said Dr. Law. “Virtual care gave us an opportunity to do something new.”

Dr. Law explained that in a patient’s cancer care journey, many appointments with specialists are devoted to analyzing test results or discussing surgical options rather than physical examinations or procedures.

“A lot of times you come in to speak to your surgeon or your other provider and it’s a lot of talking and exploring,” said Dr. Law. “Sometimes there’s the gentle touch on the shoulder but a lot of it is a conversation.”

Virtual appointments can be a good option for such times, saving people multiple in-person trips that can take up a lot of travel time and money for things like parking or gas.

But Dr. Law stressed that virtual appointments work best when conducted over online video platforms that still allow for visual communication between the doctor and patient.

“We think that seeing you not only has human communication value but there is also medical assessment value,” he said. “There’s a lot of things we can tell just by looking at you.”

Once patients are at the stage of deciding pre-operative treatments and planning, in-person visits are best – and often occur in a seamless transition from previous visits that were conducted virtually.

“Even though it’s the first time we’re meeting in person, we already feel like we know each other,” Dr. Law said. “Hopefully, we’ve established some rapport and trust and we kind of get to know each other’s personality.”

Patients who prefer to have all of their appointments take place in person can still request to do so, but Dr. Law said many seem to appreciate the benefits of a hybrid approach to their cancer care.

“As the patient you’ve just saved yourself a whole lot of trips while still getting the same value of care and the same human interaction,” he said.

About the author

Idella Sturino

Idella Sturino is a Communications Advisor at Sunnybrook. She has a passion for storytelling and public engagement and brings two decades' worth of expertise as a former journalist to the role.