Perspective from the heartland: Cancer care and research during a public health crisis


Calculating deaths and long-term consequences for cancer care delivery

It is proper that the authors from China, Italy, and Seattle did not focus attention on the case fatality rate from the COVID-19 pandemic among cancer patients. To say the least, it would be complicated to tally the direct mortality – either overall or in clinically important subsets of patients, including country-specific cohorts.

What we know from published reports is that, in Italy, cancer patients account for about 20% of deaths from coronavirus. In China, the case-fatality rate for patients with cancer was 5.6% (JAMA. 2020 Feb 24. doi: 10.1001/jama.2020.2648).

However, we know nothing about the indirect death toll from malignancy (without coronavirus infection) that was untreated or managed less than optimally because of personnel and physical resources that were diverted to COVID-19–associated cases.

Similarly, we cannot begin to estimate indirect consequences of the pandemic to oncology practices, such as accelerated burnout and posttraumatic stress disorder, as well as the long-range effects of economic turmoil on patients, health care workers, and provider organizations.

What happens to cancer trials?

From China, Italy, and Seattle, thus far, there is little information about how the pandemic will affect the vital clinical research endeavor. The Seattle physicians did say they plan to enroll patients on clinical trials only when the trial offers a high chance of benefiting the patient over standard therapy alone.

Fortunately, the National Institutes of Health and Food and Drug Administration have released guidance documents related to clinical trials.

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) has also released guidance documents (March 13 guidance; March 23 guidance) for patients on clinical trials supported by the NCI Cancer Therapy Evaluation Program (CTEP) and the NCI Community Oncology Research Program (NCORP).

CTEP and NCORP are making reasonable accommodations to suspend monitoring visits and audits, allow tele–follow-up visits for patients, and permit local physicians to provide care for patients on study. In addition, with appropriate procedural adherence and documentation, CTEP and NCORP will allow oral investigational medicines to be mailed directly to patients’ homes.

Planned NCI National Clinical Trials Network meetings will be conducted via remote access webinars, conference calls, and similar technology. These adjustments – and probably many more to come – are geared toward facilitating ongoing care to proceed safely and with minimal risk for patients currently receiving investigational therapies and for the sites and investigators engaged in those studies.

Each of us has probably faced a personal “defining professional moment,” when we had to utilize every skill in our arsenal and examine the motivations that led us to a career in oncology. However, it is clear from the forgoing clinical and research processes and guidelines that the COVID-19 pandemic is such a defining professional moment for each of us, in every community we serve.

Critical junctures like this cause more rapid behavior change and innovation than the slow-moving pace that characterizes our idealized preferences. As oncologists who embrace new data and behavioral change, we stand to learn processes that will facilitate more perfected systems of care than the one that preceded this unprecedented crisis, promote more efficient sharing of high-quality information, and improve the outcome for our future patients.

Dr. Lyss was an oncologist and researcher for more than 35 years before his recent retirement. His clinical and research interests were focused on breast and lung cancers, as well as expanding clinical trial access to medically underserved populations. He is based in St. Louis. He has no conflicts of interest.


Next Article: