What to Know About Telehealth for Prostate Cancer

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COVID-19 has drastically altered the way cancer care is practiced. In the early days of the pandemic, cancer treatment was delayed, and people (patients and doctors alike) were unsure of what was safe. Healthcare providers had to make quick changes from in-person visits to an entirely new way of practicing medicine. 

Remote access to healthcare, also known as telehealth, has become widely available, especially for people with different types of cancer. Telehealth can be a vital resource for people with prostate cancer. It can improve access to healthcare and increase the quality of cancer care regardless of the COVID-19 pandemic or your geographic location. 

This article covers how and when to use telehealth for your prostate cancer care, the benefits, and challenges of telehealth, how to prepare for your telehealth visits, and what to expect. 

Telehealth

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When to Use Telehealth for Prostate Cancer Care 

Prostate cancer is one of the most common types of cancer. It starts when cells in the prostate start to grow out of control. The prostate is a gland found only in males. It is located just below the bladder and in front of the rectum.

Having any type of cancer can be a scary and overwhelming experiencing—with or without an ongoing global pandemic. Having access to your oncology care team is vital as you live with and manage all the aspects of your cancer care. 

A telehealth medical appointment can be an option for you to see your doctor or a member of your healthcare team via a virtual video or telephone visit.

Telehealth can also be used while you are at a healthcare facility, and you need to meet with a specialist or other healthcare professional. For example, if you are at a rural clinic or a rehabilitation facility. 

More frequently, telehealth for prostate cancer care is used for follow-ups. It is also used for second opinions on diagnosis and treatment. 

Follow-Up Care 

You can use a follow-up telehealth appointment to discuss treatment with your doctor and any adverse side effects of your current treatment plan. You can also help your oncologist know how you feel about your treatment options and whether you think something isn’t helping. You can learn about possible adjustments to your treatment plan.

This is also a good opportunity to ask about additional support options for managing symptoms and treatment side effects. 

Second Opinions 

Telehealth has become a vital tool for second opinions in cancer care. It can give people with prostate cancers additional options in their healthcare.

Given that prostate cancer often is treated with surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy, and it requires ongoing care, more than one physician typically will treat someone with prostate cancer. In this case, having multiple physicians is a necessity to get the highest-quality healthcare.

According to a 2021 report in the Internal Journal of Cancer, getting a second opinion via telehealth is becoming standard practice. Some top medical institutions, including MD Anderson Cancer Center and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, are letting patients know about the value of these services. 

The report’s authors note these services are vital tools for people seeking additional information and advice on cancer care and treatments. But they caution that services should be used in addition to cancer care, rather than instead of it.

Additional Uses of Telehealth

Additional examples of when you might be able to use telehealth are: 

  • Meeting with your doctor to evaluate medical concerns
  • Discussing a new diagnosis with your doctor
  • Getting test results or information about additional testing
  • Having a referral appointment or a new consult with a specialist
  • Learning about and discussing new treatments or having a current prescription refilled
  • Attending teaching sessions with a nurse or other medical educator about a health problem, new diagnosis, or new treatment
  • Monitoring a current health issue that doesn’t require an in-person visit 

For people with current prostate cancer and survivors, telehealth can also be used for:

  • Medication management
  • Nutritional education (including lifestyle changes or help with quitting smoking) or education about a new treatment
  • Consultation with a palliative medicine specialist who can help you to manage symptoms and side effects of treatment (including pain, nausea, and vomiting)
  • Check-ins before and after chemotherapy appointments
  • Follow-up appointments

Reach out to your prostate care team to find out what telehealth technology options are available to help you manage your cancer care and provide resources to you and your family. 

You May Need to Be Seen in Person 

There will be times in which you will need to have an in-person visit with your doctor or other healthcare specialists. For example, if you have a new diagnosis of prostate cancer, your first visit with the oncologist will be in person.

The oncologist and the doctor's medical team will want you there for the initial paperwork and assessments, imaging, blood work, or other pathology tests, and to discuss treatment and other aspects of your cancer care. 

Your oncologist might also call you to come in for additional testing once you have started treating with chemotherapy or radiation therapy. The doctor may request imaging or other testing at different intervals in your treatment schedule to check tumor size and if your treatments are helping. 

You may also need to go to a cancer treatment facility for many of your cancer therapies, and COVID-19 shouldn’t stop you from doing that. 

If you need chemotherapy or other infusion treatments, the healthcare facility will do everything possible to ensure their space is safe for visitors. This might include limiting visitors, practicing masking and social distancing, providing hand sanitizers for patient and staff use, disinfecting surfaces, and screening for COVID-19

Lastly, anyone seeking prostate cancer treatment through a clinical trial might need in-person visits for evaluations and other screening. Their treatments may also need to be administered in person based on guidelines from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and other government regulatory agencies. 

Benefits and Challenges 

Studies have found the use of telehealth is effective for people with advanced-stage prostate cancer. It has been a helpful tool for continuing care without endangering the health of people with weakened immune systems that put them at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19

A study reported in 2021 looked at the use of telehealth at the advanced prostate cancer clinic at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. From April 1, 2020, to May 1, 2020, advanced prostate cancer patients were seen by a single urologist through telehealth appointments, including phone visits and video visits.

Most of the patients responded that they were able to hear and see their healthcare professionals. They also felt their privacy and confidentiality were respected, they were able to ask questions easily, and they were able to establish a rapport with their physician.

All of the patients felt their care professional explained their diagnosis and treatment options thoroughly and adequately and spent time explaining their condition and addressing their concerns.

Most of the patients (94%) said they would participate in telehealth appointments in the future if offered, and most preferred video appointments over telephone telehealth visits. 

Telehealth has become a critical tool for improving patient care during the pandemic. But as with any medical resource, it comes with its benefits and challenges. 

Benefits 

Telehealth comes with some obvious benefits. For example, telehealth visits are more convenient and save time and travel. They might reduce the amount of time you take from your job to attend a medical appointment because you spend less time traveling and in waiting rooms.

It may give you access to more healthcare professionals in different expertise areas. It also helps doctors, their staff, and their patients reduce exposure to illnesses. 

Some benefits it offers for someone being treated for prostate cancer are: 

  • Active surveillance can be done every few weeks or months. Your doctor can check in on your progress and how treatments are working or affecting you.
  • People in advanced-stage prostate cancer can have more frequent visits with their oncologists and other members of their oncology care team.
  • Lab test results can be reviewed in online patient portals.
  • Prescriptions can be requested through online patient portals.
  • Remote monitoring can reduce the risk for infection for people with immune system vulnerabilities, including prostate cancer.
  • It provides an opportunity to maintain some sense of normalcy as you manage everyday life with prostate cancer.
  • It serves as an educational tool.
  • It gives better access to mental health services (online psychiatry).

Cancer Survivorship and Telehealth

Studies have found a connection between telehealth and prostate cancer survivorship. A 2018 report in the journal mHealth finds that telehealth services for prostate cancer survivors have equal effectiveness to traditional healthcare visits.

Further, the study found that even older adults who didn’t use the Internet regularly were willing to use telehealth services if those services could improve their quality of life.  

The authors also noted that telehealth services are “acceptable, feasible, cost-effective, and potentially preferred by prostate cancer survivors.” Additionally, telehealth services promote education, self-management, and self-monitoring, all tools that improved health outcomes.

Telehealth services gave people access to services they wouldn’t otherwise have with traditional in-office services, especially people who live farther distances. All of these factors contribute to the increased number of people who survive prostate cancer. 

Challenges

Telehealth also comes with challenges. For example, it may not be appropriate for all situations. If you need to undergo a procedure or get imaging, you can’t have these tests done remotely. However, telehealth can be an option for going over test results.

In addition, some prescriptions, including prescription pain medicines, may need to be prescribed at in-person visits. 

Additional challenges with telehealth might include: 

Technological Challenges 

Technological challenges, such as spotty Internet connections or a lack of access to an appropriate device limit some people’s availability to access telehealth services. A study conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2021 found up to 7% of Americans do not use the Internet and up to 25% were older adults, ages 65 and up.

For telehealth services to work, the technology needs to be available to everyone, along with support for people who don’t know how to use these technologies.

And for people who use and have access to telehealth, it only works if you have a good Internet connection, and depending on where you live, that may not be the case. You might lose connection or have a slower connection, which could mean a longer visit or a rescheduled one. 

Some people don’t own a smartphone, tablet, or laptop computer because they can’t afford them or because they don’t know how to use them. And without a telehealth-appropriate device, they can’t have access to telehealth services.

Resistance from Cancer Care Providers

Research shows many oncology medical professionals don’t agree with the value of telehealth for cancer patients. A qualitative study reported in 2021 in the JAMA Network Open consisted of interviews of 29 oncology medical professionals before the start of the pandemic.

The respondents largely felt that telehealth was a convenient option that improved access to care. However, there was disagreement about the clinical effectiveness and additional limits of virtual physical exams, as well as cost concerns.

In addition, many reported that telehealth limited the doctor-patient relationship and their ability to comfort their patients.  A shortcoming of this study is that it did not address the opinions of these same providers after the start of the pandemic.

State Medical Licensing and Malpractice Insurance Concerns 

Additional obstacles for care providers are state medical licensing and malpractice insurance in providing telehealth services. These issues have only recently come to light because most medical professionals weren’t using telehealth services consistently. 

Now, many healthcare professionals have concerns about malpractice liability in a variety of areas, including informed consent. standards and protocols, supervision, and the extent of liability insurance coverage. That puts doctors in the position of paying special attention to liability, medical errors, privacy, service interruption, and more. 

How to Prepare for a Telehealth Visit for Prostate Cancer 

Telehealth visits can be helpful resources for you at every step of your prostate cancer journey—whether you have been recently diagnosed, are currently treating, or have finished your treatment course.

Most of the details your cancer care team would discuss at an in-person visit can be covered in a telehealth visit. Of course, the inability to perform a physical exam is a downside, but many other decisions can still be made. 

It looks like telehealth is here to stay, so it makes sense that people with prostate cancer make the most of their telehealth visits, and that starts by preparing your visit. 

Treat Your Telehealth Appointment Like an In-Person Visit

Plan for your appointment as you would if you were heading to your medical provider’s office. Write down any symptoms, questions, or concerns you want to discuss. If you are seeing a new healthcare provider, have your medical history and medication list available. 

You should also complete all necessary electronic paperwork. Many providers will allow you to update and confirm personal information, including medications and insurance information, through a patient portal.

During your appointment, make sure you take notes, and jot down any directions or new treatment plans your doctor shares with you. This way you don’t forget this information after the virtual visit is over. 

Feel Free to Include a Loved One 

It can be helpful to include a family member or friend in the telehealth visit. They can help you by taking notes and they can ask questions if they have additional concerns. Plus, they can offer support if you are feeling overwhelmed by any new information your healthcare professional gives you. 

Check Your Technology 

It is easy to get overwhelmed about any technology or Internet issues that come up during your telehealth visits. You can reduce some of this worry by making sure you have the right software on your tablet, laptop, or other smart device in advance of the telehealth visit. 

Ask for help from a loved one or your doctor’s staff if you find that you are struggling with the technology. Make sure you do this at least a day in advance of your visit. 

Before your visit, be sure to check that your device is charged, and your Internet connection is strong. A better Internet connection means your video and audio call is high quality for your telehealth appointment. You should also make sure your camera, microphone, speakers, and/or headphones are all working correctly before your appointment. 

Set the Stage

Before your telehealth appointment starts, find a quiet place to take the call. This way you can focus on your appointment without distractions.

You will want to be in a place where you can talk with your healthcare professional openly about any concerns. That area should also have good lighting so that the video is clear and visible to your doctor. 

Will Insurance Cover Telehealth for Prostate Cancer?

If you are interested in telehealth services, check with your oncology care team to find out what services are available, the necessary technology, and what costs you might incur.

You will also want to check with your insurance company to learn what types of telehealth services are covered and what out-of-pocket costs you would have to pay. If you are on Medicare, check the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid webpage for a list of 2021 telehealth-covered services.

What Happens During the Visit? 

Your prostate cancer telehealth appointment will be the same as an in-office visit and take the same amount of time. Your doctor’s staff will call you in advance of the appointment to confirm you are ready and take your co-pay. 

When it is time for your appointment, use the link or application (app) provided by your doctor’s office. If you are using an app, sign into the secure portal and wait in the virtual waiting room. If you were provided a link, you will also wait in a waiting room.

When your doctor gets on the call, they will greet you and ask you about your medical history, symptoms, and concerns. If a visual exam is needed, your healthcare professional will walk you through it and what they need you to show them.

If you have had lab work or imaging done, your healthcare professional will explain those results and what they mean. Make sure you speak up there is anything you don’t understand.

Ask any questions you have or ask for clarity for anything you don’t understand. Be sure to tell your doctor about any treatment side effects you have experienced, such as nausea or vomiting. They will also want to know about any new symptoms or pain you are experiencing.

Before the visit is over, your provider will summarize what was discussed and make sure you understand all instructions for your treatment plan. If they need you to come in for an in-office follow-up, they will let you know. Your doctor will also check to see if you need any medication refills and what pharmacy you want them sent to.

If any additional testing is needed, your doctor will provide you with further instructions or let you know if a nurse or another member of the staff will reach out. If your doctor wants you to see another doctor or specialist, they will share referral information.

Summary

People with prostate cancer may use telehealth services for some of their cancer care. It is commonly used for follow-up appointments and getting a second opinion but can be helpful for a variety of care needs. Check with your healthcare professional and insurance provider to see what is offered and what is covered.

A Word From Verywell 

Telehealth medicine services have become helpful resources for people with prostate cancer and their healthcare professionals. It is something that many medical facilities can continue to use long after the pandemic is over. It can help to ease your fears about leaving your home to attend medical appointments and allow you to have access to your cancer care team.

Don’t let the technology confuse or overwhelm you and keep you from getting the crucial care you need. Your doctor's staff or a loved one can answer questions you have about the technology needs for virtual visits.

You always have the option to come in for an in-person visit for your cancer care. Your doctor’s office staff is doing everything they can to keep everyone safe when they visit their offices.

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