Cancer can be a waiting game.
After diagnosis, patients wait to take a litany of tests, wait for the results and wait for physician referrals to explore their treatment options. To add to the frustration, cancer patients often travel great distances to receive their treatments.
Waiting is especially common for patients in rural and underserved communities, where access to treatment techniques such as minimally invasive surgery is rare.
Thanks to telemedicine, however, long waits don’t always have to be the case.
Connection to care
A recent $1 million contribution from AT&T will help close the distance between patients in rural, underserved areas and MD Anderson’s surgical oncology experts. The philanthropic contribution will fund technologies for a new telesurgery program at MD Anderson ― one of the first in the nation.
“AT&T’s laser focus on innovation, coupled with our collaboration with the best minds, leads to solutions that help better the lives of others,” says Alice Aanstoos, regional vice president for external affairs, AT&T Texas. “We’re proud to help the talented professionals at MD Anderson as they continue expanding the reach of their healing hands through state-of-the-art broadband and communications technologies.”
The program will serve as a platform to extend MD Anderson’s specialized surgical expertise beyond Houston, build new collaborations and develop mentoring programs that advance cancer surgery. Physicians will leverage telemedicine technologies, including advanced wireless communication technology and cameras that connect to robotic, minimally invasive surgical instruments.
“Telemedicine can link these patients with urban-area facilities that offer cutting-edge specialties and techniques,” says Chris Holsinger, M.D., associate professor of head and neck surgery.
Physicians will now have opportunities to remotely consult on cases and evaluate whether patients are suitable for particular treatments unavailable in their communities, enhancing their access to care.
The best and the brightest
In March, the next generation of health care leaders had the opportunity to witness the future of telemedicine in action: telesurgery.
Through the AT&T/Junior Achievement Worldwide Job Shadow Initiative, 30 students from Houston’s DeBakey High School for Health Professionals and The Woodlands High School visited MD Anderson to learn about its new telesurgery program funded by AT&T. They also had the opportunity to tour departments and speak with resident physicians.
Students watched a live telesurgery demonstration involving a remote site in California. Holsinger described the procedure as “Playstation or Xbox Kinect meets ‘Grey’s Anatomy’.”
MD Anderson faculty and leadership also spoke to the students about their work, the education that prepared them for their careers and the future of medicine.
“High school was the seed for me to ultimately become a physician,” says Ronald DePinho, M.D., president of MD Anderson. He encouraged the students to “work hard, focus and embrace knowledge.”
On department tours, students learned firsthand the job skills they need to succeed in various health care professions.
In the Head and Neck Center, students learned about making facial prosthetics. Anaplastologist Patti Montgomery showed them how a prosthesis, unique to each patient, is created just like a “piece of art.”
Ivy Robinson, clinical supervisor of radiation therapy in Radiation Oncology-Therapy, taught students the importance of patient care skills in addition to technical skills and training. She reminded them that “patients look to you to give them hope.”
With AT&T’s support, the telesurgery program and students have the potential to shape a critical part of the future of oncology at MD Anderson and beyond.
Building for the future
Phase one will involve pre-operative consultations between surgeons at MD Anderson’s main campus and those at its Katy and Sugar Land regional care centers. This pilot project will serve as a testing ground for telesurgery technologies and equipment.
In phase two, MD Anderson surgeons will coach, observe and teach other surgeons.
“MD Anderson has the experience and cancer volume to help lower-volume centers,” says Holsinger. “Telemedicine technology decentralizes knowledge and expertise held within large centers.”
During the last phase, MD Anderson surgeons will assist distant teams using robotic instruments. An additional $2 million is needed to complete the program funding.
According to Holsinger, the program falls in step with the direction medicine is headed.
“You have a cohort of students coming of age when we not only have robotic technology but also a way to virtualize education, mentoring and assisting with surgery,” says Holsinger. “It’s a natural evolution of surgical and medical technologies blending with a generation that’s already facile and comfortable with the technology in the first place.”