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“Essential Oncology”: The COVID Challenge

By CHADI NABHAN MD, MBA, FACP

One harsh Chicago winter, I remember calling a patient to cancel his appointment because we had deemed it too risky for patients to come in for routine visits—a major snowstorm made us rethink all non-essential appointments. Mr. Z was scheduled for his 3-month follow-up for an aggressive brain lymphoma that was diagnosed the prior year, during which he endured several rounds of intense chemotherapy. His discontent in hearing that his appointment was canceled was palpable; he confessed that he was very much looking forward to the visit so that he could greet the nurses, front-desk staff, and ask me how I was doing. My carefully crafted script explaining that his visit was “non-essential” and “postponable” fell on deaf ears. I was unprepared to hear Mr. Z question: if this is his care, shouldn’t he be the one to decide what’s essential and what’s not?

This is a question we are all grappling with in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. The healthcare industry is struggling to decide how to handle patient visits to doctor’s offices, hospitals, and imaging centers, among others. Elective surgeries are being canceled and advocates are arguing that non-essential outpatient and ER visits should be stopped. Ideas are flying left and right on how best to triage patients in need. Everyone has an opinion, including those who ironically consider themselves non-opinionated.

As an oncologist, these various views, sentiments, tweets, and posts give me pause. I understand the rationale to minimize patients’ exposure and thus prevent transmission. However, reconsidering what we should deem “essential” has made me reflect broadly on our method of providing care. Suddenly, physicians are becoming less concerned about (and constrained by) guidelines and requirements. Learning how to practice “essential oncology” may leave lasting changes in our field.  

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