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Breast Cancer: How the Pandemic Changed the Doctor-Patient Relationship

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on September 13, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought big changes to the way doctors provide care to people with breast cancer. Many oncologists now offer some types of breast cancer care virtually. This is known as "telehealth" or "telemedicine." It includes things like screening, diagnosis, treatment, and follow-up care for breast cancer.

What Is Telehealth Medicine?

Telehealth is a type of health visit in which your doctor or other health care professional provides care without you having to visit them in-person at an office, clinic, or a hospital. It can include phone calls, emails, or texts, using smartphones, tablets, or a computer.

Types of Telehealth Medicine

Video/audio chats. This type of doctor's appointment may include real-time audio-video chats with your doctor or other health care providers on a phone, tablet, or a computer. You may have to make an appointment just like you would for an in-person visit.

Your doctor may use this virtual appointment to do a remote evaluation. If your doctor isn't able to address your concerns remotely, they may suggest an in-person visit for a thorough check.

In certain cases, you may have a hybrid in-person health test with a nurse, physician assistant, or other types of health care providers. This can include blood pressure checks or a physical exam. This information may be passed on to the doctor to help them get a better picture of your health.

Online patient portals. In this type of remote care, images, messages, and other important information is uploaded to a secure messaging website. Your doctor may evaluate this separately at another time and respond to it, order prescription drugs, or provide health advice based on the information available. Both you and your health care provider will access the secure portal to exchange information and messages.

Remote patient monitoring. Sometimes you may need specific or specialized types of care that may not be easily available in the area you live in. In such cases, you may have to reach out to a specialist remotely from a distance.

Email or text communication. Your doctor or someone from your doctor's office may securely send test results or information about follow-up visits through email or text. This could include email attachments, images, and PDFs.

Telehealth and Breast Cancer Care

Here are some things to keep in mind if you're seeking breast cancer care during the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Don't put off getting treatment or a breast exam if you suspect a lump or irregularity in your breasts. Reach out to your primary care doctor or a cancer specialist right away.
  • If you're nervous about a virtual appointment with a doctor, ask a family member or a friend to join you. If they can't meet you in person, ask them to join via phone or video chat. This may ease your tension.
  • Understand that the COVID-19 pandemic has not only made health care difficult for you but also for the health care providers, too. The virtual appointment may be the best option to keep you and the health care staff safe and limit the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19.
  • Virtual doctor appointments may feel awkward sometimes. But just as you would in an in-person appointment, if you feel like you're not getting the right care, feel free to get a second opinion.
  • Don't hesitate to reach out to mental health experts if you find that you're feeling depressed or anxious. Many psychologists, therapists, and counselors have virtual care options, too.
  • If your medical team believes you need an in-person for a certain treatment or therapy such as chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery, closely follow instructions to limit infection and stay vigilant about your health and safety. This could include the routine use of sanitizers, washing hands, limiting family visits if you're at the hospital, and getting tested for COVID-19 regularly.

Benefits of Virtual Breast Cancer Care

If you're diagnosed with breast cancer, continuous care is important to stay on top of your treatment. Sometimes, if an in-person visit isn't possible because of health risks or lack of access, telehealth can help fill the gap and let you continue your care.

The benefits of telehealth for your breast cancer care and your overall health can include:

  • Screens people who may have symptoms of COVID-19 so they won't risk spreading illness to others.
  • Lets you know if you may need additional medical consultation or assessment.
  • Gives you access to specialists, including those for mental health and chronic health conditions.
  • Helps you manage your prescription drugs.
  • Provides coaching and support for various migraine issues, including lifestyle and nutrition counseling.
  • Lets you take part in physical therapy or occupational therapy.
  • Monitors your blood pressure, blood glucose levels, and other key measurements.
  • Gives you access to top medical care, especially if you live in a rural area or have limited ability to move or visit your doctor in person.
  • Provides remote follow-up appointments after you've been hospitalized. This helps to lower your exposure to any virus or bacteria if your immune system is compromised.
  • Gives you medical and planning advice if you or a caregiver need make a list of preferences in case of a medical crisis.
  • Provides non-emergency care for your breast cancer issues.

Limitations of Telehealth

While virtual visit may save you time and a trip to the doctor's office and keep you safe during a pandemic, there are several limitations you may face.

This includes:

  • Doctor's office and health care regulations may vary state to state.
  • Your medical insurance may not cover out-of-state doctor visits. Depending on the type of care you may receive during your virtual visit, your insurance company may not cover the charges. And your insurance may not cover out-of-state doctor visits.
  • Virtual doctor visits may make it hard to discuss sensitive topics, especially if you have physical or emotion discomfort or certain privacy concerns.
  • Virtual visits require technology and internet access. If you live in a remote area, internet access could be an issue.
  • Without in-person physical exams, your doctor may miss or misdiagnose underlying conditions.
  • Virtual visits cannot fully replace emergency medical care.
 
WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

CDC: "Using Telehealth to Expand Access to Essential Health Services during the COVID-19 Pandemic."

Breastcancer.org: "Special Report: COVID-19's Impact on Breast Cancer Care."

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