Clinical Insights

Using telehealth to deliver palliative care to cancer patients



Traditional delivery of palliative care to outpatients with cancer is associated with many challenges.

Dr. Alan P. Lyss

Telehealth can eliminate some of these challenges but comes with issues of its own, according to results of the REACH PC trial.

Jennifer S. Temel, MD , of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, discussed the use of telemedicine in palliative care, including results from REACH PC, during an educational session at the ASCO Virtual Quality Care Symposium 2020.

Dr. Temel noted that, for cancer patients, an in-person visit with a palliative care specialist can cost time, induce fatigue, and increase financial burden from transportation and parking expenses.

For caregivers and family, an in-person visit may necessitate absence from family and/or work, require complex scheduling to coordinate with other office visits, and result in additional transportation and/or parking expenses.

For health care systems, to have a dedicated palliative care clinic requires precious space and financial expenditures for office personnel and other resources.

These issues make it attractive to consider whether telehealth could be used for palliative care services.

Scarcity of palliative care specialists

In the United States, there is roughly 1 palliative care physician for every 20,000 older adults with a life-limiting illness, according to research published in Annual Review of Public Health in 2014.

In its 2019 state-by-state report card , the Center to Advance Palliative Care noted that only 72% of U.S. hospitals with 50 or more beds have a palliative care team.

For patients with serious illnesses and those who are socioeconomically or geographically disadvantaged, palliative care is often inaccessible.

Inefficiencies in the current system are an additional impediment. Palliative care specialists frequently see patients during a portion of the patient’s routine visit to subspecialty or primary care clinics. This limits the palliative care specialist’s ability to perform comprehensive assessments and provide patient-centered care efficiently.

Special considerations regarding telehealth for palliative care

As a specialty, palliative care involves interactions that could make the use of telehealth problematic. For example, conveyance of interest, warmth, and touch are challenging or impossible in a video format.

Palliative care specialists engage with patients regarding relatively serious topics such as prognosis and end-of-life preferences. There is uncertainty about how those discussions would be received by patients and their caregivers via video.

Furthermore, there are logistical impediments such as prescribing opioids with video or across state lines.

Despite these concerns, the ENABLE study showed that supplementing usual oncology care with weekly (transitioning to monthly) telephone-based educational palliative care produced higher quality of life and mood than did usual oncology care alone. These results were published in JAMA in 2009.

REACH PC study demonstrates feasibility of telehealth model

Dr. Temel described the ongoing REACH PC trial in which palliative care is delivered via video visits and compared with in-person palliative care for patients with advanced non–small cell lung cancer.

The primary aim of REACH PC is to determine whether telehealth palliative care is equivalent to traditional palliative care in improving quality of life as a supplement to routine oncology care.


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