Lessons from COVID-19: How to Support those Facing Serious Health Challenges Like Cancer

January 12, 2021
Jessica Territo

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of the serious medical difficulties patients with cancer face has been brought to the forefront for healthcare as a whole. But we can learn lessons from these challenges and find a stronger path forward.

When facing serious medical difficulties, patients with cancer encounter a multitude of stressors that can take both a physical and emotional toll on the individual patient, as well as on members of their support system. Oftentimes, patients and caregivers must make difficult decisions with limited data, must reconcile conflicting medical opinions, and must filter out the “noise” of advice and anecdotal evidence from family and friends.

The experience can be isolating and frightening, with medical and mental health professionals often failing to recognize or properly address the psychosocial needs of the patient and caregiver. Although the growth of survivorship programs are encouraging, support services are still desperately needed and the widespread impact of COVID-19 provides more insight into what patients and families find helpful.

Since COVID-19, our entire world has experienced the paralyzing uncertainty and fear that comes with facing an unpredictable medical challenge. We have seen how it has crippled nations, overwhelmed healthcare systems, devastated educational practices and decimated economies across the globe. We have witnessed, as individuals and as a society, the complications of having incomplete information: the struggle to make decisions based on fluid, incomplete, or even biased data and the franticness of wanting to find answers to serious medical problems. People want reassurance that their symptoms are not COVID-19, even when mild to moderate cases were simply isolated at home. If people were to self-quarantine regardless of the test result being falsely negative, then they simply wanted to know for their own piece of mind.

It was meaningless in terms of a treatment standpoint. People began to recognize the anxiety-reduction component of having 24/7 medical information, as around-the-clock virtual medicine exploded beyond simply a way to avoid exposure when seeking treatment. The desire and usefulness of being able to track symptoms and triage when it is important to call a provider or seek emergency treatment became evident.

Hospital systems and insurers have developed their own platforms and their own informational messages for consumers, and these platforms have not only provided medical success but anxiety reduction. COVID-19 has led to widespread social isolation as a societal preventative measure, and patients facing a COVID-19 diagnosis are either isolated within their household from other family members or isolated more completely within hospitals.

Those who have recovered from active infection often talk of feeling further isolated because of feeling ostracized from their communities and misunderstood because of lingering physical symptoms. People struggle with the open-endedness of the pandemic and the uncertainly about when “normal” life will resume and the likelihood that some aspects of “normal” life will be forever changed. People are examining their relationships, their marriages, their careers, their views on education, and other major areas as they struggle to find meaning.

These challenges highlight those encountered by people on a “health-related” precipice and might be easier for most to understand now that societally we have experienced a glimpse of these challenges. We can also reflect on how some of the COVID-19 changes may generalize to other medical stressors. Some suggestions for patients, caregivers and medical and mental health professionals are summarized below:

  • Lack of complete information: Expand patient access and centralize medical records; increase the role of a “Nurse Navigator” or medical “point person” to oversee complicated cases with multiple medical providers to increase the likelihood that treatment is unified
  • Access to timely medical information: Provide online tools to allow for symptom tracking and interaction with physicians’ offices, medical “point” person, or urgent care
  • Effective psychosocial support: Reducing isolation through individual or group support; mental health check-ins incorporating mindfulness, finding meaning, and sense of togetherness

With these lessons in mind, not only will cancer care find a way to come back stronger but all of healthcare as well.

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