COVID-19 is having a profound impact on healthcare systems and it's particularly bringing a large amount of uncertainty and challenges to both oncologists and cancer patients alike. Oncologists are overwhelmed with tremendous amounts of COVID-19 information that they need to process in order to make informed and sensible decisions for treating patients. While patients are also overwhelmed and turning to social and digital media to understand the COVID-19 crisis and its impact on their personal situations.
Social and digital media
On YouTube, the number of videos about cancer and COVID-19 has increased significantly over the last month. Among those videos are segments produced health organisations/media channels such as MD Anderson Care Center, Cancer Treatment Centers Of America and Cure Today, as well as mainstream media outlets such as CBS This Morning. In addition, more sensationalistic channels such as China in Focus – NTD (created in Feb 2020) are promoting various non-science-based topics – from conspiracy theories to anti-China content. Unfortunately, some sensationalistic channels have become much more popular than scientific and educational channels.
Furthermore, the most recent scientific videos coming from more reliable sources are not entirely reassuring patients, as they are continuing to report that there's a lack of data to make informed decisions and that the most important action to take is to follow social distancing and strict hygiene procedures.
Information access and sharing
In our research, we also found a webinar featuring three U.S. based oncologists – Ali Khaki, Brian RIni and Petro Grivas – speaking on the impact of COVID-19 on GU Cancer Patient Treatments. The three oncologists debated and discussed the lack of real time, robust data on how to clearly treat cancer patients given the COVID-19 pandemic. This challenge was also highlighted in a New York Times article depicting how physicians are turning to social media for answers and guidance during these very uncertain times.
Although social media can be a good source of information, it can also present challenges with regards to which forums to follow and how to browse and identify correct information. The lack of centralisation and the multiplication of data sources on a platform such as Facebook can make things even more difficult. We also found several large closed Facebook physician groups across the UK and the United States.
Patients and caregivers/family members are also facing similar issues, as they have often been uninformed during the pandemic and are seeking advice on social media – not because of a lack of information for their particular situations, but rather because they are not clear on how to interpret government and physician guidelines.
Impact on treatment
The impact of COVID-19 on cancer patients and how it could affect our health systems and patient/physician mental states is very apparent. While physicians are evaluating cancer patients on a case by case basis, they are already telling some patients that they will face changes or delays in their treatments and advising them to stay away from hospitals and care centres. Patients are also reporting that their procedures and treatments are being delayed (including clinical trials), or just cancelled until further notice – creating anxiety, fear and frustration.
We also found evidence, albeit rare, of physicians increasing dosages to avoid multiple office visits for some patients in the upcoming weeks, as well as patients deciding to postpone their own treatment. Amid the confusion, it's also interesting to note that ASCO has published guidelines that are likely to impact treatment decisions.
COVID-19 will most certainly continue to have an impact on cancer patients and their treatment for the foreseeable future. Pharmaceutical companies are well positioned to proactively support patients and physicians through these troubled times and reassure them that they are doing everything in their power to limit the impact of COVID-19 on cancer treatment. Setting up support networks for doctors and patients can remove barriers and enable patients to get timely access to potentially life-saving treatments.