In March oncologists, haematologists, palliative care and pain specialists gathered in Barcelona – as well as virtually from locations across Europe – for the third annual BeCOn (Building Excellence & Continuity in Oncology) Summit.
This year’s summit grappled with the topic of ‘difficult cancer conversations’ and how digital technology is taking cancer conversations online.
During the summit, oncology specialists discussed the mounting evidence that effective and empathic communication with cancer patients and their families can enhance decision-making, and positively impact patient quality of life and satisfaction with cancer care.
Oncology training programs traditionally do not offer experience in this aspect of care, although communication skills have now been defined as one of the core competencies for oncology trainees.
To address this critical gap, the BeCOn summit brought together members of the international oncology community to delve into communication skills that support holistic, patient-centred cancer care, while exploring how digital communications can support cancer patients and their families at crucial moments – such as diagnosis, disease recurrence and transition to palliative care.
“Cancer care is about more than medicine – it’s about providing holistic, patient-centred support that really takes into account the challenges patients face on their journey with cancer,” explained Maja Gasparic, Associate Medical Director, Oncology, Teva Europe.
Gasparic continued, “Teva’s BeCOn conference aims to support oncologists, haematologists, and palliative care and pain specialists by creating an opportunity for them to hone their skills in having those difficult conversations that can help patients on their journey with cancer.”
Oncology patients want online engagement
A poll taken during the BeCOn Summit revealed that over half (52%) of oncology healthcare professionals were not using social media to interact with patients. “If you don’t use social media, the conversations taking place online are going on without you,” said Don Dizon, Clinical Co-Director of Gynaecologic Oncology, Massachusetts Hospital Cancer Center.
“Patient-centred care is the mantra – we want to focus our efforts on what patients want and what patients need. Social media will allow you to find out exactly what that means.”
Oncology patients are increasingly expecting to engage with their HCPs on social media, yet few published guidelines exist that provide oncologists with guidance for using social media safely and effectively.
Dizon shared key findings from his 2012 review article and warned of the dangers of not partaking in the conversation.
The future is digital
The Medical Futurist, Dr. Bertalan Mesko, spoke on preparing for the digital technology revolution and predicted that “all the repetitive parts of the clinician’s role will eventually be taken care of by technology. The remainder will be why we became doctors – to care for patients.” The clinician’s role will change to one of “providing orientation through the jungle of digital information.”
Mesko discussed how HCPs are ill-prepared to embrace new and emerging technologies for patients and medicine, with only a handful of digital literacy courses being taught in medical schools worldwide. In the era of the empowered patient, Mesko emphasised that healthcare must catch up or it risks being left behind, with potentially damaging implications for the doctor-patient relationship.
Mesko said, “We need healthcare professionals who still think that the human touch is the key essence of providing care, but they also know how to use disruptive technologies. We are social beings – we need people to tell us that it’s going to be alright and what is the best decision in this treatment or prevention.”
According to Mesko, medical training must be improved, combining digital & health literacy to prepare a generation of physicians who are open to technology and innovation.
Broaching difficult conversations
Difficult cancer conversations can come in many forms – delivering bad news, discussing end-of-life treatment and care and approaching taboo topics. One of the biggest barriers to finding out more about intimacy and sexual problems during and after treatment for cancer is the difficulty in opening up lines of communication between doctors and patients.
Many HCPs do not feel competent and comfortable in having these conversations, with many unwilling to broach these topics with their patients.
“No approach in medical care deserves the term holistic, as long as sexuality and intimacy have not been adequately addressed,” said Woet Gianotten, MD, Consultant in Oncosexology, De Trappenberg, the Netherlands, and co-founder of the International Society for Sexuality and Cancer, who presented at the summit.
Gianotten advised on how to initiate and conduct discussions on this potentially uncomfortable subject, and the long-term health benefits of sexual expression.
Another difficult conversation that oncologists struggle with is fertility preservation.
Many cancer patients express dissatisfaction with fertility preservation communication, with fertility concerns often overlooked or not sufficiently addressed and/or not addressed at the right time.