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A day in the life of two oncologists during COVID-19

Cancer doesn’t stop during COVID-19, and neither does our dedicated team of MSD scientists working to help their patients

June 3, 2020

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Drs. Jonathan Cheng and Scot Ebbinghaus have continued to see patients at a cancer clinic in Philadelphia, while also leading teams of dedicated cancer researchers at MSD Research Laboratories. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt daily life around the world and everyday plans are put on hold, this is not an option for those living with cancer.

Jon and Scot are following rigorous safety precautions their clinic has instituted to ensure patients continue to receive the care they need, while at the same time implementing new tools like telemedicine to provide supportive and personalized care for their patients during this challenging period. We sat down with Jon and Scot to discuss the unique situation and concerns cancer patients are facing right now and what they are doing to ensure their patients receive proper and consistent care.

The human impact of COVID-19

JONATHAN CHENG: Our understanding of COVID-19 is increasing daily, but much is still unknown about the impact of SARS-CoV-2 infection on cancer patients. I continue to follow the emerging and up-to-date information and guidelines set forth by health authorities and medical societies while at the same time considering each patient’s unique situation. Every decision we make is about evaluating the benefit-risk right now.

SCOT EBBINGHAUS: We do know that patients with underlying medical conditions or compromised immune systems are generally at a higher risk of getting infections, including viral infections such as SARS-CoV-2. We’ve adapted new policies and safety measures at our clinic, which has allowed us to continue to see patients without disruption to their care while at the same limiting transmission.

Safeguarding the health of cancer patients

JON: We strongly recommend the same measures that the general population are encouraged to follow, but we tell our patients to be especially cautious and vigilant right now given their heightened vulnerability. Strict social distancing, wearing a mask and frequent handwashing are particularly important among patients with underlying conditions. I also spend a fair bit of time educating my patients about SARS-CoV-2 and why the clinic has instituted new policies in order to keep them as safe as possible.

SCOT: Yes, I think most of our patients have appreciated that we have proactively addressed the situation and are taking the necessary precautions to avoid disruptions to their care. At our clinic, everyone gets their temperature checked, we wear face masks, try to keep a safe social distance from patients and staff and, unfortunately, visitors or family members are not allowed to accompany patients to appointments. We do encourage patients to have family members call us so that patients continue to feel supported and family members are informed.

Maintaining continuity of care

JON: The majority of my patients are thankful that our clinic is open and operating at close to full capacity so that they can continue to come in for treatment or appointments. They’re facing a life-threatening disease, and to not have access to care in this situation can be very scary.

SCOT: I agree. For my patients, the biggest threat to their health remains their cancer. I work closely with each of my patients to try to keep their treatment on target as much as possible. As appropriate, we are using telemedicine to be able to follow-up and monitor our patients without having them come into the clinic. I do think telemedicine is here to stay and has allowed us to continue to maintain the same level of effective, quality care and support for our patients.

Combatting fear and isolation

JON: Many of our patients rely heavily on their family or loved ones to provide support while they are undergoing treatment for their cancer. I know that has been difficult for my patients now that we’ve had to limit visitors to the clinic. I make a concerted effort to talk to each of my patients about how they are feeling both physically and emotionally and how they are dealing with social distancing, knowing it can make them feel even more isolated.

SCOT: I try to keep an open line of communication with my patients to make sure they feel like they have the support they need, and we proactively address the emotional impact of social distancing. I encourage my patients to try to maintain contact with their families and friends as much as they can while still following social distancing guidelines. This time can feel isolating and lonely for many of us and support systems are critical.

The power of resiliency and hope

JON: I try to remind my patients that this too shall pass. Cancer patients are exceedingly resilient. They have shown time and time again that they are up to the challenge and committed to doing all that they can when facing this disease.

SCOT: In times like this I think it is important to maintain a sense of hope and remember that there is light at the end of this tunnel. It hasn’t been easy, but we are all in this together. Tying together my clinical practice and my work at MSD, I’d like cancer patients to know that we are continuing the fight through cancer research and continue to make significant progress in the fight against cancer even in these challenging times.