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Virtual Cancer Care in a Post-pandemic World

office building facade
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Annemarie Edwards

Annemarie Edwards

Director, Centre for Cancer Prevention & Support, the Canadian Cancer Society

The Canadian Cancer Society’s Centre for Cancer Prevention and Support represents a new opportunity to move research on virtual care into practice faster.

The COVID-19 pandemic spurred unprecedented changes to how people access cancer care in Canada. Over just four days in March 2020, virtual care at Princess Margaret Hospital — Canada’s largest cancer centre — rose from two percent to 71 percent of visits. This dramatic pivot in health care delivery wasn’t unique or short-lived.

Two years later, virtual appointments remain an important aspect of care for people living with cancer. A survey conducted by the Canadian Cancer Society (CCS) in January 2022 indicated that 79 percent of patients continue to meet with health care providers virtually.

This surge in virtual care has provided clear evidence of the promise this model of care holds. Using technology to facilitate medical appointments has been shown to increase access to care by making it more convenient, less costly, and less time-consuming than in-person visits.

But more needs to be done to improve and optimize virtual care equitably in Canada. Nearly half of the respondents to CCS’s 2022 survey reported that the quality of their virtual appointments was lower than in-person appointments.

This is unsurprising given how quickly virtual care shifted from an emerging area of exploration to an urgent and immediate need. Canada’s health care system — and cancer care system specifically — was simply not prepared to meet the unexpected demand. To better support people living with and beyond cancer in a post-pandemic world, we must invest in more research to advance our knowledge of the tools and resources needed to deliver effective, high quality virtual care.

Building a body of knowledge large enough to bring about meaningful changes in health care practices and systems can take a long time. Fortunately, initiatives like CCS’s new Centre for Cancer Prevention and Support (CCPS) — which brings together researchers, clinicians and patients from across the country to share discoveries and implement learnings — can accelerate this process.

As a national hub of research and innovation, CCPS represents a new opportunity to translate research on virtual care into practice faster. That’s why, with the support of our donors and partners, the Centre is embarking on a journey to investigate and evaluate approaches to virtual care so that going forward, we can optimize the delivery of care and improve the patient experience.

While virtual care will never fully replace in-person care for people facing cancer, it can reduce the burden of medical appointments and ultimately enhance a person’s experience with cancer care. In a world where virtual care is becoming standard practice, we have a duty to invest in research to ensure this type of care meets the needs of those who will rely on it. Applying these research findings is the path forward for enhancing the future of cancer care delivery in Canada.

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