Philippines: How telemedicine tackled cancer mortality rise in the pandemic

Cancer mortality numbers increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, due to insufficient doctor–patient communication.

Physicians have also detected new comorbidities through more frequent phone consultations

The number of cancer mortalities in the Philippines increased during the COVID-19 pandemic because of insufficient communication between physicians and their patients.

In the midst of March 2020, the Philippines mandated a total lockdown due to the rising numbers of COVID-19 cases. Under such circumstances, several medical facilities were declared COVID-hospitals.

However, the number of infections continued to rise until medical facilities reached capacity and medical equipment shortages became a problem. For that issue, COVID-hospitals restricted non-COVID patients' admissions and prioritized crucial surgeries while postponing elective surgeries to free up hospital beds.

Eventually, cancer patients and their families refused to attend hospital consultations, because they feared the risk of COVID-19 exposure. Essential surgeries and ongoing patient care services were delayed, resulting in the development of other medical problems, negatively affecting the country's cancer survival record.

Lost lives caused by fear?

Facing the fear of a COVID-19 infection during the pandemic is hard for cancer patients, who often are immunodeficient. However, with enough information and support from physicians, patients can overcome their concerns.

For instance, one case reported was of a cancer patient (J. G. 38/M) that feared hospital visits and eventually canceled consultations for a few weeks. During his absence from medical checks, he became dyspnoeic and febrile which led to his emergency admission and immediate intubation.

However, it was too late to save his life. This unfortunate event happened due to insufficient communication between physicians and their patient on the actual risks that COVID-19 posed to the former.

Also, a statistical rise in cancer mortality was recorded in the Philippines during the pandemic. Unfortunately, most of these lives may have been lost because of miscommunication. The fear and distress of cancer patients concerning face-to-face hospital consultation during an ongoing pandemic seems to be a product of limited patient awareness regarding actual and perceived risks.

How to overcome the problem of miscommunication?

To resolve the problem of insufficient communication between physicians and their patients, active telemedicine is routinely and widely used now in the Philippines to address this, a trend that developed while the country was facing a complete lockdown. Physicians and patients can remotely communicate with each other for consultations that now enable physicians to do regular follow-ups on their cancer patients.

First, telemedicine allowed physicians to maintain an open line with their patients at any time. Second, physicians reassured their patients that they were safe to visit the hospital as long as they followed proper biosafety measures to prevent a COVID-19 infection. Third, physicians were also able to ask certain questions to their patients that allowed for the detection of previously accounted for or undetected comorbidities.

In conclusion, the implementation of telemedicine in the Philippines improved access to healthcare and reduced healthcare costs during the pandemic. This innovation has not only become an alternative to prevent hospital bottlenecks but is also a method to break communication barriers and to maintain a steady and efficient contact between physicians and their patients.

Wang EHM et al., Lessons Learned: Patient Communication During the Pandemic. Malaysian Orthopaedic Journal 2021; 15(1):