Oncologists Need to Advocate for Scarce COVID-19 Resources: ASCO

From the WebMD Archives

What your doctor is reading on Medscape.com:

APRIL 15, 2020 -- As the COVID-19 pandemic forces rationing of ventilators, intensive care beds, and other resources, oncologists need to advocate for their patients and to support informed decision making as to resource allocation, both at the institutional and regional level, according to new recommendations from the American Society for Clinical Oncology (ASCO).

"There was a lot of concern from the oncology community that if a patient had cancer, they would be arbitrarily excluded from consideration for critical care resources," said Jonathan M. Marron, MD, chair-elect of ASCO's Ethics Committee and lead author of the recommendations.

"The hope is that we'll never have to make any of these decisions...but the primary reason for putting together these recommendations was that if such decisions have to be made, we hope to inform them," he told Medscape Medical News.

Marron, who is a pediatric hematologist at Boston Children's Hospital, says ASCO's main recommendation is that decisions about the allocation of resources must be separated from bedside clinical care, meaning that clinicians who are caring for individual patients should not also be the ones making the allocation decisions.

"Those dueling responsibilities are a conflict of interest and make that physician unable to make an unbiased decision," he said.

"It's also just an unbearable burden to try and do those two things simultaneously," he added. "It's an incredible burden to do them individually, but it's multifold worse to try to do them both simultaneously."

He said the vital role of oncologists who provide treatment is to offer the kind of personalized information that triage committees need in order to make appropriate decisions.

"They should be asked ― maybe even must be asked ― to provide the most high-quality evidence-based data about their patients' diagnosis and prognosis," Marron commented. "Because oncology is evolving so rapidly, and cancer is so many different diseases, it's impossible for someone making these decisions to know everything they would need to know about why this patient is likely to survive their cancer and this patient is not."


He says that during the COVID-19 pandemic, concerns regarding public health transcend the well-being of individual patients and that consideration must be given to providing the maximum benefit to the greatest number of people.

"That makes perfect sense and is the appropriate and laudable goal during a public health emergency like this...but one of the challenges is that there is this belief that a diagnosis of cancer is uniformly fatal,"Marron said.

"It's certainly conceivable that it would be a better use of resources to give the last ventilator to a young, otherwise healthy patient rather than a patient with multiply recurrent progressive metastatic cancer," he continued. "However, we want to ensure that there is at least a discussion where that information is made available, rather than just saying, 'She's got cancer. She's a lost cause.' "

Cancer Patients Are Doing Very Well

Concerns about cancer misconceptions have been circulating in the oncology community since the start of the pandemic. "It's really important that people understand that cancer patients are doing very well nowadays, and even with a diagnosis of cancer, they can potentially live for many years," Anne Chiang, MD, PhD, from the Smilow Cancer Network, New Haven, Connecticut, told Medscape Medical News in a recent interview.

Thus far, even in hard-hit New York City, fears that cancer patients may not be receiving appropriate care have not materialized, according to Mark Robson, MD, a medical oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC). "I would emphasize that cancer patients are ABSOLUTELY getting the care they need, including patients with metastatic disease," he recently tweeted. "NOONE at @sloan_kettering (or anywhere else) is being 'triaged' because of advanced cancer. Period."

Robson told Medscape Medical News that although MSKCC continues to provide oncology care to patients with cancer, "we are [also] treating them if they develop COVID.... I am trying to help pivot the institution towards care in this setting."

He said he agrees with Craig Spencer, MD, MPH, director of global health in emergency medicine at the New York–Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center, who recently tweeted, "If you need a ventilator, you get a ventilator. Let's be clear – this isn't being 'rationed.' "


Marron emphasized that an important safeguard against uninformed decision making is appropriate planning. For hospitalized patients, this means oncologists who provide treatment should offer information even before it is requested. But he said the "duty to plan" begins long before that.

"Clinicians haven't always been great at talking about death and long-term outcomes with their patients, but this really cranks up the importance of having those conversations, and having them early, even though it's incredibly hard. If someone has expressed that they would never want to be put on a ventilator, it's important now even more so that is made clear," he said.

He said early responses to the ASCO statement suggest that it has calmed some concerns in the oncology community, "but it still remains to be seen whether individual institutions will take this to heart, because this unto itself cannot enforce anything ― it is up to individual institutions. I am hopeful this will get to the people it needs to get to."

Medscape Medical News


ASCO. Recommendations for the oncology community. Full text

© 2020 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.