Aha Media Group writer Teri Cettina switched roles, from health copywriter to patient, when she was diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer.
My most recent chemotherapy appointment marked the first time I had visited my local hospital since the COVID-19 crisis began.
The treatment regimen was dramatically different than it had been before, due to all the new precautions my healthcare system introduced. There was no way to sugarcoat the fact that the virus had become a palpable threat — both to me, with my immune system compromised by chemotherapy — and to the brave healthcare workers who were dealing directly with patients.
My healthcare system made treatment day a bit easier by communicating with me (via phone and email) about changes I should expect at my appointment. However, they could have done better.
After treatment day, I made a list of some important questions that are probably running through your patients’ minds right now. I’d suggest that the more COVID-related answers you can give patients with cancer right now — on your website or in direct, online chart messages — the better.
Here are the questions I had and suggestions for how to answer them for your audience:
Q: Can patients still get chemotherapy during COVID-19? What about routine imaging tests? And blood tests?
A: Your healthcare system’s answers will vary according to your community’s treatment priorities right now.
- If your answer is “yes”: Highlight how you’ve enhanced check-in screenings and treatment procedures to ensure that your immunocompromised patients will continue to be safe at your facility.
- If your answer is “no”: This is a difficult situation. Patients aren’t going to like your answer, no matter how you word it. Your best bet is to maintain a strong sense of empathy. Reassure your patients that this is a temporary situation and that they should talk to their oncologist about their particular condition.
For instance, you could include wording like this:
- “Yes, we are continuing to offer blood testing and chemotherapy treatments to most of our cancer patients right now. You’ll get an email before your next appointment that details our updated check-in and health screening procedures.”
- “If your oncologist decides you need to have imaging tests right now (such as X-rays and CT scans), we’ll arrange those appointments for you. However, we will likely delay any nonessential scans until the COVID-19 situation in our community settles a bit.”
Q: How are the facility’s check-in and treatment processes different now due to COVID-19 concerns? How will you ensure patients’ health and safety?
A: Your team has probably made significant changes in this area. Inform patients about the major ones, such as:
- Has the parking situation changed?
- Will patients need to use a different entry?
- Should patients expect to be greeted at the facility’s entry lobby by staffers who will check their temperatures and ask them detailed health questions?
- Is the patient cafeteria closed or running on limited hours?
If you let patients and their families know what to expect, they’ll be less surprised and nervous when they arrive.
As you know, some patients drive long distances for their treatments. It can be upsetting for them to arrive and learn that they should have brought their own lunch or that their familiar parking garage is now closed.
Similarly, you may want to let patients know:
- If your infusion chairs have been placed farther apart for safety
- Whether private rooms are available for patients who aren’t feeling well or have coughs (A lot of patients with lung cancer or lung metastases have noninfectious coughs that might make others extra nervous right now.)
Q: Can a friend or family member still accompany patients to appointments?
A: Address this question upfront. If a patient’s driver and/or support person can’t stay with them, they need to know that.
If your facility isn’t allowing visitors to attend cancer-related appointments, can friends/family participate another way? For instance, can a patient’s support person join via video or a phone call during the appointment? Cell phone use is often discouraged in exam rooms. So if you’re making an exception to your policy right now, be sure to say so.
Q: Should patients still come to a cancer-related appointment if they — or anyone with whom they’ve been in close contact — have flu-like symptoms or have tested positive for COVID-19?
A: You’ll most likely be asking patients to call their oncology office ahead of their appointment if this is the case. Consider explaining to patients that you’ll refer them to a triage nurse or offer a telemedicine visit to determine whether they’re well enough to come in.
Show warmth and concern. Patients are already nervous about their health. You don’t want to make them feel that you’ll block them from seeing their care team because of the COVID-19 risk. Reassure them that you’ll find ways to provide critical treatment.
Q: Should patients wear a face mask to cancer-related appointments, or will the hospital provide one on arrival?
A: Face it: There’s still a lot of confusion about mask-wearing. We know healthcare providers will wear them, but are patients expected to wear them, too?
Cancer patients are used to disposable masks being readily available at their treatment centers. At my infusion center, those jars of masks are long gone. Since you probably can’t provide masks for patients, the question of bringing a mask is even more important.
Let patients know whether they should wear their own face covering no matter what — or only if they have a cough or runny nose. You may also want to indicate that even wearing a bandana or scarf is acceptable right now.
Q: Is the support team (chaplain, social worker, palliative care nurse) available to patients now?
A: These folks are often just as important to your patients as their oncologists. If possible, try to schedule in-person visits with these key people while your patients are already at your clinic for chemotherapy, radiation therapy or routine office visits.
Many healthcare systems also offer video chats and phone calls between patients and their cancer support team. Reassure patients that you will find ways to keep them connected with their support team, and let them know how to make appointments with these folks.
Q: Is there anyone patients can talk to if they’re facing extra challenges right now — i.e., a job loss in the family, or help getting medications, meals, mental health support or rides to appointments?
A: Your health system’s social workers are probably the best people to help patients access extra resources. They will likely know what services are available in your particular community.
In some areas, for instance:
- Firefighters are delivering prescriptions to elderly and immunocompromised individuals at home.
- Laid-off transportation workers are delivering meals to homebound folks.
- Volunteers are offering rides to medical appointments.
Help patients understand how to connect with local helpers, whether that’s via your social work team or by calling local organizations directly.
Q: Are cancer support groups still meeting? Do you still offer your specialty services, such as acupuncture, access to the research library and Qigong and meditation classes?
A: Customize your answer to fit your system’s situation:
- If your support groups and classes have started meeting online: Offer details on how patients can connect and what technology they might need.
- Can telephone customer service staff help patients with connection issues? Be sure to make user-help phone numbers prominent.
Q: Are there any additional immune-boosting strategies cancer patients should consider right now?
A: If you have a wellness, integrative health, naturopathic or physical therapy team, ask them to prepare tip lists. Consider posting them on your website, and/or emailing directly to cancer patients.
In particular, you might create content for:
- “Tips for staying healthy at home,” including:
- Immune-boosting supplements
- Hand-washing and disinfection procedures
- Reminders that patients should avoid going to grocery stores, casinos or churches, if they’re open
- “Tips for staying active,” including:
- Suggestions for gardening, walking outside (with mask and social-distancing reminders) and stretching
- Strengthening options patients can do at home
Patients with cancer are extra worried right now about being exposed to the COVID-19 virus as well as maintaining a strong immune system. A straightforward, empathetic Question & Answer module may limit the number of repetitive questions your busy staff needs to answer right now.