It has been two years since the Livestrong Cancer Institutes’ outpatient oncology clinic at UT Health Austin opened its doors. In that short time, the clinic has undergone an astounding amount of growth.
In December 2018, LCI clinicians started seeing patients with gastrointestinal and gynecologic cancers. The clinic also launched a novel approach to patient-centered oncology service, known as the CaLM (Cancer Life reiMagined) Model of Whole-Person Cancer Care.
This model is unique because every patient is triaged through an interdisciplinary “SWAT” team — including a medical oncologist, advanced practice provider, palliative care specialist and clinical social worker — to help patients identify and address needs, including those beyond their disease. To support minds, bodies, spirits and loved ones, other embedded supportive services include fertility navigation, genetic counseling, oncology pharmacy support and onco-psychiatry.
The clinic has now expanded to caring for patients with many different types of cancer, including hematological malignancies, head and neck cancers, lung cancer and, most recently, breast cancer. Angela Luna, LCSW, senior clinical social worker at UT Health Austin, says this increase in the number of patients has pushed the clinical staff to “work smarter.” The SWAT team sees patients together when possible to reduce a person’s number of appointments, connecting the right patients to the right resources at the right time — all in an effort to support and not overwhelm patients.
Of course, no one would have predicted that we would be in a pandemic for the majority of 2020, almost half the time the clinic has been open. After all, patients undergoing chemotherapy are immunocompromised, and having cancer increases a person’s risk of severe illness from COVID-19. The clinic has remained open full time, five days a week for in-person appointments like physical exams or pre-chemo check-ins. In March, the team also launched a telehealth program to better provide services that did not need to be in-person, such as social work consults, fertility counseling and nutrition appointments.
Surprisingly, clinicians saw the benefits of virtual visits almost immediately. Providers were able to connect with patients on a deeper level because they were more comfortable in their home environments, says Anne Courtney, DNP, associate provider at UT Health Austin.
All of a sudden, it was possible for family members living in other parts of the country to be directly involved in care decisions. Luna says telehealth also removed barriers of getting to appointments, such as transportation, parking and time spent in waiting rooms.
Between implementing a new model of cancer care, adjusting this model as the number of patients increased and launching a telehealth program in response to the pandemic, the outpatient oncology clinic at the LCI has shown that flexibility, resilience and commitment are at the heart of its mission to provide whole-person care for patients with cancer.