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Young Adult Patients Tap Into Long-Distance Support

May 30, 2019
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This is the third of seven posts highlighting the achievements of this year’s ACCC Innovator Award Winners. Join us at the upcoming ACCC 36th National Oncology Conference, Oct. 30 – Nov. 1, 2019, in Orlando, Florida, where the 2019 Innovator Award recipients will present on their pioneering initiatives.

Although support groups can be a useful coping mechanism for people with cancer, the effectiveness of such groups tends to be limited by distance and high attrition rates. Laura Melton, PhD, ABPP, the medical director of supportive oncology at the University of Colorado Cancer Center, says her institution struggles with reaching patients who often live far from where they receive treatment. “In Colorado, we have a population that is dispersed across many rural areas,” says Dr. Melton. “We have a large catchment area in our cancer center, so in order to meet patient needs, we have to reach them where they are.”

One group Dr. Melton is particularly interested in reaching is young adults with cancer, that is, patients who are 18-40 years old. These patients share unique needs and concerns that differ from those of older patients. “Many of these patients work full time, have young children, have a different social life, and deal with different psychosocial issues,” says Dr. Melton. “In many ways, they are an orphan population.”

To better meet the specific needs of young adults with cancer, the University of Colorado Cancer Center created an in-person young adult support group, putting patients in touch with peers who may share similar concerns. But because support group members often lived long distances from the cancer center, attendance was poor.

To better enable patient participation in the group, the University of Colorado Cancer Center created a long-distance support group pilot program composed of young adults in active cancer treatment. The cancer center identified and invited eight patients to participant in the six-week pilot. The average age of the group was 30, and group members lived in various locations across a wide geographic expanse in the state.

During the pilot program, group members were each gifted an iPad donated by a cancer organization. The cancer center equipped the iPads with HIPAA-compliant software, and participants used them to meet virtually via video chat once a week for six weeks. The virtual meetings were facilitated by two cancer center staff members—a psychologist and a social worker.

“Some of our participants were neutropenic,” says Dr. Melton, “so they would not have been able to attend group meetings in person. Being able to join the group remotely meant they did not have to miss meetings. One participant was hospitalized during the pilot, but she took her iPad with her, so she was able to attend and get support when she needed it most.”

Being able to attend meetings virtually also meant that traveling in rough weather was not an issue. Dr. Melton said that when one meeting was held, there was a local tornado watch. But that had no effect on the group’s ability to meet. Distance was also not a concern. “Some participants live very far from our cancer center,” says Dr. Melton. “Group members would have had to drive an average of three hours to attend meetings.”

The pilot was a resounding success for its participants, all of whom completed the program. Seventy-one percent said they preferred meeting remotely rather than in person. Dr. Melton says group members stayed in touch with one another after the pilot, forming bonds via email, texting, and video chat.

With the success of this virtual support group, the University of Colorado Cancer Center is looking to conduct additional telemedicine support group pilots—both with young adults and other patient groups—to explore how best to establish programs like this one. Dr. Melton says that virtual care, both clinical and otherwise, is the wave of the future. “The days of patients coming in and getting care in person at one place are numbered,” she explains. “If we don’t respond to that, we will miss opportunities to serve our patients.”

Join us at the ACCC 36th National Oncology Conference in Orlando this fall, where you can learn how the University of Colorado Cancer Center’s efforts to create a virtual support group may apply to your organization. Register today.

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