How tech can help ameliorate the oncology staffing crisis

Harnessing specialized oncology informatics and advanced computing technologies for improving patient care.

As demand for cancer care continues to rise, the oncology workforce is facing inordinate stressors amid a staffing crisis that is impacting bandwidth and well-being, as well as potentially compromising the level of patient care. Nurses, medical assistants and other support staff remain in short supply, leaving physicians to do more with less.

To ease the strain caused by workforce shortages, oncology teams need solutions that provide immediate and reliable assistance. Could technology be the answer? Specialized oncology informatics systems are gaining popularity because not only do they offer a solution that standardizes traditional oncology care processes through the automation of simple tasks, but they also provide the support that clinicians need to carry them through these staffing shortages and beyond.

The challenges

Even before the pandemic, the healthcare workforce shortage was a concern. Now, it is a crisis. The industry is struggling to fill positions — from leadership to support staff and everyone in between.

Burnout is at an all-time high, retirements are rising without enough people to backfill open positions, and more people are looking for remote work, which isn’t ideal in the cancer care setting. While technology is making strides to help fill these gaps, there are challenges to implementing informatics systems that meet the specific needs of oncology practices and their patients.

Perhaps of greatest concern is the lack of platform standardization across hospitals, medical centers and other treatment facilities. Disconnected systems hinder the sharing and transferring of data, which could delay treatment — and in cancer care, every minute counts. Incompatible platforms make it difficult, if not impossible, to quickly access the necessary data that is critical in caring for people with cancer.

To address this, oncology centers could consider a single-vendor model and operate through a unified platform. Although not always possible, working with a single vendor for communication, interface, hardware and software can increase efficiency through seamless connectivity. To serve those who cannot use a single system, there is a growing market for more comprehensive, dedicated specialty electronic medical records systems that link with internal and external systems.

However, this leads to another key challenge – many informatics systems are too broad and are not designed to meet the specific needs of oncology staff and patients. To support oncology care, a tailored solution needs to perform a host of tasks, including addressing information overload, flagging abnormal results in a timely manner, coordinating teamwork required by oncology providers and staff, documenting patient treatments to minimize potential safety hazards, providing remote access to patient information, and streamlining workflows. 

The solution

In today’s technology-driven world, informatics systems are constantly improving to provide greater visibility and coordination of care at a granular level. With complete patient history at their fingertips, physicians can become fully informed about their patients minutes before they walk into the consultation room. This easy access to information helps to reduce the time to treatment and results in higher levels of patient safety, more facetime with the patient, and ultimately, improved patient care.

Several healthcare informatics platforms have hit the market, ranging from electronic health records to patient portals, telemedicine, artificial intelligence and more. However, the key to an integrated care strategy isn’t necessarily more tools — it’s standardization and customization.

Specialized oncology platforms can systematize daily oncology care processes and automate mundane tasks, which, in turn, lightens the practitioner’s workload by streamlining workflows and enabling decision support. Informatics software provides anything from templated tools and documents designed to support federal compliance and minimize billing denials to paperless document sharing, which saves time and preserves patient privacy.

One key feature included in these smart systems is templated documents, where input from physicians triggers suggested next steps. For example, intuitive and tailorable consent forms enable digital entry of patient specifics by answering prompts presented by the system. In turn, a viable consent form is generated that can be signed by the patient and instantly saved in the EMR system. The advantage of these “living documents” is that they may organically increase patient safety, save time and decrease liability and risk.

In addition to tailorable consents, advanced oncology-specific systems now leverage patient feedback data to quickly identify patients who may require early intervention. This enables physicians to create more responsive treatment plans, reducing expensive and unnecessary follow-up care. With longer wait times between appointments because of staff shortages, tools that support early interventions and patient engagement beyond the clinic improve quality of care and ease the transition from treatment to everyday life.

Every physician’s priority is maximizing one-on-one time with patients. In light of the nature of cancer care, it is important to leverage tools that allow more time for listening and offering thoughtful treatment options while minimizing time spent navigating information and patient data behind a laptop.

Nothing is more frustrating to a patient facing a critical illness than a doctor who doesn’t remember their care plan or appears distracted as they sift through documents on a screen. Hospitals and clinics implementing informatics solutions are able to streamline processes, enable monitoring of patient progress throughout their treatment, capture critical patient experience data that may have been overlooked, and ultimately provide a greater level of patient care.

Technology’s future in cancer care

Emerging technologies like machine learning have the potential to further revolutionize oncology informatics by enabling more accurate predictions, tailored treatment plans, and increasingly ideal patient outcomes.

Machine learning analyzes vast amounts of data, including patient records, medical images and genomic data. It incorporates this data into informatics systems, helping providers identify patterns in symptoms and treatment, and making predictions that can further guide and support them in clinical decision-making. As platforms increasingly leverage machine learning technologies, they enable oncologists to develop more targeted and effective treatment plans while reducing the occurrence of patient adverse events and minimizing unnecessary interventions.

The ongoing and increasing need for tailored cancer treatments combined with the growing incorporation of technology like machine learning for clinical support assures a future for cancer informatics software solutions. Looking forward, we will see an exponential increase in investments in technology and its engineers, leading to the continued development and refinement of these software solutions.

In the face of the current workforce crisis, the growing integration and bright future of customizable oncology informatics have the potential to transform cancer care and provide relief and ongoing support to overburdened healthcare providers, improving patient outcomes and ensuring that people with cancer receive the best possible care.

Michael Yunes, MD, chief of radiology and oncology in Massachusetts.

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