Cancer growth and cancer care have never stopped in the world of Oncology and the COVID-19 pandemic. Hospitals and cancer centers faced unique challenges and were forced to adapt quickly to ensure the safety of cancer patients, at heightened risk for COVID-19. Across the nation, we saw oncologists, healthcare workers, and patients come together to overcome the challenges and produce incredible solutions that may be with us for years post-pandemic.
We sat down with Laura Thevenot, CEO of the American Society of Radiation Oncologists (ASTRO), the largest society for Radiation Oncology in the world, regarding the last couple years; including patients facing more advanced forms of cancer, clinics pivoting to telemedicine, taking care of physicians’ mental health, and the future of large-scale industry events like ASTRO’s annual radiation oncology conference.
Did COVID-19 End Healthcare Tradeshows?
The Virtual Migration
2020 was the year of the virtual doctor’s visit, virtual meeting, and virtual conference, with web conference platforms being the home of most correspondence between healthcare organizations during the pandemic. Large in-person events started moving online in tandem with the initial surge, and as the two-week lockdown shifted to the entirety of the year, so did effectively every industry event and tradeshow that was planned, including ASTRO 2020.
Laura Thevenot thought back to the public mindset towards COVID-19 during Spring 2020, as the world began to shut down.
“No one knew what was going on, I thought we’d be reopening in two weeks!” However, around mid-May, organizers realized that pushing the event online was the only option if ASTRO was to return that year. Making a call early on to move to fully virtual allowed for the time needed to transition the largest Radiation Oncology trade show in the world as well as provide a thorough and successful educational event to radiation oncologists throughout the globe.
With ASTRO’s national conference moving online, challenges began to appear for presenters, attendees, and organizers. Despite making the early and difficult decision to cancel the Chicago conference, Thevenot had to consider ASTRO’s time investment, the safety of her membership, and the show’s significant budget. She and her capable team had to adapt to a completely new medium, while still providing the full experience attendees were accustomed to and expecting. The online option pulled new expenses from ASTRO’s budget by more than $500,000.
Financial and Logistical Implications
Many businesses and nonprofits who ran similar tradeshows struggled with the financial burden of canceling conferences, moving to virtual platforms, and seeing a reduction in registrants. ASTRO lobbied successfully to get 501C6 organizations relief from COVID-19 relief bills, which provided support for many of these organizations. Extending this extra financial backing to all nonprofits positively impacted the event industry.
Even with it being impossible to run in-person shows in 2020, the positive outcome and future opportunity for live and hybrid events in 2021 and beyond will benefit the organizations that made it through the pandemic. With virtual events continuing and hybrid shows becoming more prevalent; the questions: “Will the demand outweigh the convenience of virtual platforms?” and “What is the place of large in-person tradeshows and events post-pandemic?” remain as unknowns. Our best guess, however, is that a hybrid option will be the way of the future.
The Future of Hybrid Events
While ASTRO did run successfully online, the loss of face-to-face interaction made an impact on everyone. “There is a real benefit for people being able to walk down the hall and ask questions and connect with the community.” Thevenot pointed out, “Now, there is a pent-up demand for in-person shows.” National and international conferences are not leaving anytime soon. However, she did note that virtual conferences offer a great opportunity for international attendees of major conferences to avoid flying in from out of the country for a one- or two-day event when a virtual option is available from anywhere in the world.
As with telemedicine, virtual conferencing will most likely remain a tool going forward, rather than a replacement, increasing convenience and opportunity for many as a supplementary option.
For the healthcare community in the short term, masking may remain the industry standard for large events, and in the long term, proof of vaccinations will no doubt remain a discussion for and events can once again be a helpful opportunity for medical professionals to meet, network, and learn in safe and enjoyable atmospheres.
Laura Thevenot and ASTRO: Taking the Lead in Advocacy and Information for Radiation Oncology
With 19 years of experience in radiation oncology and 35 in the broader field of healthcare, working for insurers and hospitals before joining ASTRO; Thevenot has taken the lead in growing ASTRO to an organization that provides advocacy and global leadership for the entirety of radiation oncology. Her roots as a lobbyist have influenced ASTRO’s continued advocacy efforts to Congress as they negotiate continued changes in healthcare legislation.
ASTRO has been at the forefront of negotiating CMS and Congress’s changes to the annual healthcare updates that affect radiation oncologists nationwide. In addition to providing feedback and pushback for legislation like the Alternative Payment Model “APM” specific to Radiation Oncology, Thevenot and ASTRO bring the latest news on proposed billing and reporting requirements to members on their website. The dissemination of information on news and legislation that affects radiation oncologists creates a more informed and connected community of physicians and health information workers.
Providing survey information on how practices were impacted and adapted to COVID provides a comprehensive industry benchmark on how the industry as a whole will move in the next few years. As we emerge from this pandemic, the importance of detailed information straight from radiation oncologists nationwide will help us better understand how to prepare for the uncertain future.
By being adaptable and accepting horizontal, vertical, and diagonal career movements, Thevenot learned finance, association leadership, and countless other skills on the road to leading ASTRO; all of which she uses today as CEO. As a result, ASTRO built a unique voice through connections within the industry and Congress, using their platform to incite change in Congress, then communicate the news directly to radiation oncologists. For those young and hungry in the industry, learning and growing from every opportunity adds immensely to your abilities, even if it might not seem immediately useful.
Ensuring the Best, Safest Possible Treatment
A Quick Pivot to Telemedicine
This is hardly the first you have heard of telemedicine (and certainly not the last), as it has been a broadly useful tool across the entirety of healthcare. Virtual meetings allow for consistent checkups and correspondence with patients from the comfort and safety of anywhere with smartphone or internet service.
Clinics were fast to adopt telemedicine as a focus for care, made possible by CMS and the government moving very quickly to change the ability for doctors to use it. Thevenot went on to praise the “pivot to telemedicine” as a great option for follow-ups and check-ins that do not require patients to feel unsafe or lonely in hospitals and sees telemedicine continuing to be a popular option for many practices. Telemedicine allowed hospitals and physicians flexibility and offered patients peace of mind during the pandemic.
Moving forward, telemedicine will remain a fixture for many hospitals and clinics in a hybrid format, as the upsides for both patient and provider allow for a customized care model that treats cancer effectively and conveniently for patients. For example, telemedicine transformed Hawaii’s cancer care model, solving transportation issues between islands.
DiGiaimo adds that telemedicine not only allows for ease of connecting a provider to a patient in a safe environment but also has the positive side effects of reduced time on transportation, cost of fuel for patients that may live a far distance and perhaps most importantly, it allows for family members to also easily participate so that the details of the conversation that are sometimes not absorbed by the patient are attained by caretakers.
Despite necessary adaptions, COVID’s impact will continue to be felt for years, and the key to recovering long term lies in the oncologist’s ability to stay adaptable and seek solutions for patients while remaining cost-efficient. Providing proper, safe care for cancer patients is always the utmost goal and adapting as we have with telemedicine for future potential risks will ensure that we successfully traverse that hurdle as well.
Taking Care of the Physician in America and Around the World
Handling Supply Shortages
For many small practices and physician groups, there were worrying shortages of PPE equipment among other concerns about ongoing operations during the pandemic. With how fast and hard the pandemic hit facilities, the demand for masks, gloves, and other essential equipment threatened to stop cancer care entirely. ASTRO quickly recognized that need and jumped into action by working with various organizations to produce an easily accessible online database to submit equipment requests and ensure radiation oncologists were able to provide safe care for one of the most at-risk populations.
Thevenot had regular calls with her peers around the world in South and Central America as well as working routinely with Europe via Alessandro Cortese CEO of the European Society of Radiation Oncology “ESTRO”, Sally Kincaid, CEO of Australian Society of Medical Imaging and Radiation Therapy “ASMIRT” to share updates and successes for quick implementation and assistance for cancer patients and providers across the globe. Thevenot thrives on subduing stress for her team and members, but long-term exposure does have its tolls.
Mental Health Needs During the Pandemic
Mental health for physicians continues to be an important discussion in the healthcare field, with the pandemic highlighting the issue further. Just like telemedicine, necessary policies during the pandemic like working from home flexibility are remaining extremely helpful options for patients and providers going forward. Cancer centers and hospitals must continue to keep their workflow solutions and evolutions, rather than take steps back as COVID-19 fades from focus.
Thevenot urges the importance of bringing in professionals focused on mental health, recognizing stressors, providing a multitude of solutions, and “understanding that it is OK to not be OK.”
Do right by the care providers by recognizing and honoring practices that positively impact each worker’s unique situation and investing in them as a highly important resource. She serves as a role model in this area by providing on-site or telehealth psychology sessions for her staff allowing grief management techniques for both professional and personal relief.
Keeping the Creative Solutions and Adaptations
This practice of taking what we learn from COVID-19 and implementing it into our normal practices does not stop at mental health and extends all over healthcare. Despite the difficulties that practices had to tackle and are still tackling, the number of creative solutions that were implemented for the sake of both patient and physician proved impressive, making tangible differences and evolving processes be effective and efficient while displaying empathy.
Adaptation and change are not foreign to radiation oncologists and seeing practices across the nation and world work to continue providing the best possible care to patients are inspiring, paving the way for post-pandemic recovery. At times like this, it is comforting to know capable leaders are in places like Laura Thevenot and her team of management leaders and her board’s world-class physicians and vendor CEOs across the nation.