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APRIL 21, 2020 -- Delivering cancer care during the COVID-19 pandemic has proven particularly challenging, as minimizing the risk of infection must be balanced with maintaining optimal outcomes.
Healthcare systems and oncologists have had to reorganize standard oncologic care in order to protect vulnerable patients from exposure to COVID-19 as well as deal with pandemic-related issues of equipment and staffing shortages.
A new article now describes how seven cancer centers in Europe rapidly reorganized their oncologic services and are tackling this crisis, as well as offering guidance to other institutions.
This was a major undertaking, to work out a system where patients can still get care but in a safer manner, explained coauthor Emile Voest, MD, medical director of the Netherlands Cancer Institute in Amsterdam.
"Decisions needed to be taken based on availability of personnel, protective materials, and urgencies," he told Medscape Medical News. "Because every country had its own speed of development of the COVID pandemic, there were different scenarios in all institutions, but all with a common factor of key expertise on how to de-escalate in a safe manner."
The article was published April 16 in Nature Medicine.
The Netherlands Cancer Institute (the Netherlands), Karolinska Institute (Sweden), Institute Gustave Roussy (France), Cambridge Cancer Center (United Kingdom), Istituto Nazionale dei Tumori di Milano (Italy), German Cancer Research Center (Germany), and Vall d'Hebron Institute of Oncology (Spain) have been working closely together in a legal entity since 2014, and have created 'Cancer Core Europe' (CCE). The goal is to "maximize coherence and critical mass in cancer research," the authors note.
The consortium represents roughly 60,000 patients with newly diagnosed cancer, delivers approximately 300,000 treatment courses and conducts about 1.2 million consultations annually, with more than 1500 ongoing clinical trials. In a joint effort, the centers collected, translated, and compared the guidelines that had been put in place to treat patients with cancer during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Cancer treatment is multidisciplinary and involves many specialties including surgery, radiology, pathology, radiation oncology, and medical oncology. Coordinating care among disciplines is a very complex process, Voest noted.
"Changing treatment also means that you need to reconsider capacities and requirements," he said. "Hospitals have installed crisis teams that were very good at coordinating these efforts."
Cancer care had to be reorganized on multiple levels, and the CCE centers looked at several aspects that needed to be accounted for, to ensure continuity in cancer care.
"The biggest challenge for the NHS and other healthcare systems is the surge of patients requiring oxygen and/or intensive care, and the nature and infectiousness of the virus," said coauthor Carlos Caldas, MD, FMedSci, professor of cancer medicine at the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom. "In hospitals that are mostly run close to capacity, and where all kinds of patients are treated, this has created major resource and logistical problems."
For regular clinical activities, the institutions with dedicated cancer centers (German Cancer Research Center, Institute Gustave Roussy, Istituto Nazionale dei Tumori di Milano, and Netherlands Cancer Institute) have attempted to stay COVID-19 free. This policy would in turn help ensure that sufficient clinical and intensive-care capacity could be reserved for critical cancer surgeries or management of treatment-related side effects, and allow hospitals outside of the CCE to transfer patients with cancer to these centers. The general hospitals can then focus on caring for patients with COVID-19, as well as other illnesses/injuries that require inpatient care.
As the CCE centers located within general hospitals (Cambridge Cancer Center, Vall d'Hebron Institute of Oncology and Karolinska Institute) have to admit patients with suspected and positive cases of COVID-19, being "COVID-19 free" was never a realistic or pursued goal.
The authors note that it is the responsibility of all healthcare professionals to ensure patients are not exposed to COVID-19, and this has meant minimizing hospital visits and person-to-person contact. For example, whenever possible, consultations take place via telephone calls or over the Internet, and nonurgent appointments that would require a patient's physical presence at the clinic have been postponed. Visitors are also not permitted to accompany patients when admitted to the hospital or during procedures.
Standard-of-care treatment regimens have been adapted across all centers to minimize the number of hospital visits and hospitalizations and prevent "anticancer treatment-induced" complications of COVID-19.
To minimize visits and hospitalizations, strategies include converting intravenous treatments to oral or subcutaneous regimens when possible; switching from cytotoxic chemotherapy to a less-toxic approach to minimize the risk of complications requiring hospitalization; or to pause therapies when possible (stable disease reached or better). In addition, nonemergency surgeries have been postponed or replaced by radiotherapy.
To prevent anticancer treatment-induced complications of COVID-19, most centers use the paradigm that the added benefit for tumor control should be weighed against the potential risk for COVID-19–related morbidity and mortality. To prevent or reduce the risk of neutropenia and lymphopenia, for example, all centers have suggested a de-escalation of cytotoxic chemotherapy or targeted treatment strategies, or to forgo second or subsequent lines of palliative treatments if response rates from up-front therapy are low.
Some of these changes may be here to stay, noted Caldas. "One of the positive messages that comes out of this is that, clearly, care can be delivered in a safe and compassionate manner without requiring as many hospital visits as in the pre-COVID-19 era," he said. "In the future, we will take heed of the COVID-19 experience to improve delivery of cancer care."
Capacity of Facilities
Many healthcare systems have become overwhelmed as the pandemic has intensified, thus making it necessary to prioritize. To prepare for this possibility, CCE centers have established protocols to categorize and prioritize patients for systemic treatment or surgery. While the protocols vary by center, they are comparable with one another as they prioritize on the basis of anticipated treatment outcome, the authors note.
The guidelines in CCE centers unanimously recommend that neoadjuvant therapies and curative surgeries be the top priority, for the times when operating room and/or ICU capacity is limited. As an alternative, neoadjuvant systemic treatments may be initiated or extended to postpone surgery, and other nonsurgical interventions can be considered.
In addition, some centers agree that certain elective surgeries can be safely delayed if backed by scientific evidence. As an example, an 11-week deferment of surgery may be acceptable for patients with rectal cancer after downstaging.
Cancer centers may also need to upscale and downscale quickly, depending on how the pandemic evolves, and many have already outlined scenarios to prepare for increasing or decreasing their capacity using phased approaches.
The Netherlands Cancer Institute, for example, has defined four phases of increasing severity; in Germany, capacity planning has been coordinated among 18 hospitals and the federal ministry of health, in order to prevent shortages of cancer services.
"We note that the optimal downscaling strategies depend on country- and center-specific capacities and preferences," they write. "Therefore, it is difficult to propose a common schedule, and it will be most effective if hospitals outline their own phase-specific downscaling strategies based on the prioritization schemes and practical handles discussed above."
Better strategies will be needed to reduce the impact of COVID-19 in cancer care, and four research priorities were identified to allow for evidence-based adjustments of cancer care protocols while the pandemic continues:
Collect real-world data about the effects of adjustment and de-escalation of treatment regimens on outcomes
Determine the incidence of COVID-19 in both the general population and among patients with cancer who have received systemic therapies, with large-scale serological testing
Develop an epidemiological model that will allow estimates of the cumulative incidence of COVID-19 for a patient with cancer, within a specific time frame
Determine COVID-19 related morbidity and mortality in patients with cancer who have been treated with systemic therapies and/or granulocyte colony-stimulating factor (G-CSF). Several projects are currently underway, such as the UK Coronavirus Cancer Monitoring Project.