The health care field has enlisted four powerful allies in its war on cancer.

Together, these advances in cancer prevention, screening and treatment will lead to improved health status and clinical outcomes for patients while at the same time improve the business health of oncology practices that can innovate their practice models to take advantage of them.

Health Care Consumerism Comes to Cancer Care

The first advance is in prevention, and that's consumer-driven knowledge of cancer risk. The ability of consumers to educate themselves on their own cancer risk is growing exponentially. Consumers have access to information on the Internet. They have access to home genetic testing. They have access to their own medical records from their primary care physicians or other medical specialists. They have access to the medical histories of their family members.

They then make an appointment with an oncologist and bring in their self-reported information to the office and ask the oncologist to make sense of it all. That's a fundamental change in the doctor-patient relationship driven by health care consumerism applied to cancer prevention. Oncology practices must learn how to respond appropriately to that advance and to the patient expectations that come along with it. That's a clinical and business opportunity for oncology practices. They must be able to hold conversations with those patients about their cancer risk and guide them on what to do, which can be anything from lifestyle changes to preventive surgery.

Using Big Data to Maximize Care for your Patients

The second advance is in leveraging data, often requiring advanced analytics capabilities or “Big Data”. By way of example, with electronic health records and patient portals, providers can readily reach out to patients when new therapy options emerge. The ability to access data from various sources in order to make healthcare decisions is routine today. The ability to access data on populations of patients in order to predict outcomes of various treatment options for your current patient will be more common in the future. In the discovery of new genetic markers and implications for therapy decisions for current or past patients, the ability to mine data to locate the patients that need to be reached will be more important as more cancer patients become survivors and science evolves with new discoveries that matter for survivors.

Treatment Advances in Both Medical and Radiation Oncology

The third and fourth advances are in treatment: One in medical oncology and the other in radiation oncology.

In medical oncology, the advance is in immunotherapies. Immunotherapies are drug therapies that help a patient's own immune system kill cancer cells. Oncologists are pleased to have access to the two new agents recently approved by the FDA for treatment of melanoma and lung cancer—checkpoint inhibitors, a new class of therapies with many others on the horizon—that will have a significant impact on patient care and innovations in treatment options for patients.

In radiation oncology, the most recent advance is proton beam therapy and its ability to target cancer cells while not damage surrounding tissues. Like immunotherapies, proton beam therapy has been around for a few years, but the technical precision and knowledge of how best to use it have significantly improved.

[Editor's Note: Learn more about the role that molecular and genetic testing plays in determining the efficacy of cancer screening and treatment in this video interview with Douglas Moeller, M.D., medical director of McKesson Health Solutions.]

Eight Ways to Innovate the Oncology Practice Model

The four oncology advances – consumer-driven knowledge of cancer risk, advanced data analytics, immunotherapies and proton beam therapy – will make good on their promise to improve cancer prevention, screening and treatment only if oncology practices know what to do with them.

I would recommend that oncologists consider the following eight innovations in their practice models:

  • Hire genetic counselors who are experts at interpreting molecular and genetic tests and determining how the results could impact prevention, screening and treatment.
  • Collaborate with medical specialists outside of oncology like pulmonologists or gastroenterologists who can identify at-risk patients who should be screened.
  • Judiciously use promising new, higher-priced drugs and treatment modalities. Practices should know the likelihood of individual patient response. Oncologists must think about outcomes and ensure that they're spending the right amount on the right patient at the right time for the patients' benefit. That's especially true for practices under new alternative payment models.
  • Offer evening and weekend practice hours to patients, giving them access to outpatient care that can prevent a trip to the emergency room and potential hospitalization.
  • Use home monitoring technology to track patients' health status in real time, especially for patients at high risk for complications. That data can be fed to an off-site, centralized nurse on-call center that can alert oncologists to situations that require their intervention.
  • Add telemedicine capabilities that would allow patients to consult with their oncologists online to deal with many medical problems early and avoid a trip to the hospital.
  • Employ nurse practitioners and physician assistants to expand the practice's capacity to provide care and guidance not required to be provided by an oncologist.
  • Hire or retain data analytics experts to fully exploit the power of Big Data to help guide the practice's prevention, screening and treatment decisions.

Oncologists who hope to take advantage of the four advances, grow their practices and be relevant five years from now should embrace a patient-centered practice model that emphasizes team-based care and uses technology to improve their diagnostic and business acumen.

Lisa Holland

About the author

Lisa Holland joined McKesson Specialty Health in 2012. She is responsible for The US Oncology Network Clinical Services Team with a focus on supporting the Practices and Providers in their mission of excellence in oncology patient care across the USA. Lisa is responsible for execution of the research organization that supports about 300 active clinical trials at any given time, reaches 3,000 patients a year with access to clinical trials, and supports more than 900 clinical investigators.