European Cancer Centers Restructure Care in the Era of COVID-19

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APRIL 21, 2020 — Delivering cancer care during the COVID-19 pandemic has proven particularly challenging, as minimizing the risk of infection must be balanced with maintaining optimal outcomes.

Healthcare systems and oncologists have had to reorganize standard oncologic care in order to protect vulnerable patients from exposure to COVID-19 as well as deal with pandemic-related issues of equipment and staffing shortages.

A new article now describes how seven cancer centers in Europe rapidly reorganized their oncologic services and are tackling this crisis, as well as offering guidance to other institutions.

This was a major undertaking, to work out a system where patients can still get care but in a safer manner, explained coauthor Emile Voest, MD, medical director of the Netherlands Cancer Institute in Amsterdam.

“Decisions needed to be taken based on availability of personnel, protective materials, and urgencies,” he told Medscape Medical News. “Because every country had its own speed of development of the COVID pandemic, there were different scenarios in all institutions, but all with a common factor of key expertise on how to de-escalate in a safe manner.”

The article was published April 16 in Nature Medicine.

The Netherlands Cancer Institute (the Netherlands), Karolinska Institute (Sweden), Institute Gustave Roussy (France), Cambridge Cancer Center (United Kingdom), Istituto Nazionale dei Tumori di Milano (Italy), German Cancer Research Center (Germany), and Vall d’Hebron Institute of Oncology (Spain) have been working closely together in a legal entity since 2014, and have created ‘Cancer Core Europe’ (CCE). The goal is to “maximize coherence and critical mass in cancer research,” the authors note.

The consortium represents roughly 60,000 patients with newly diagnosed cancer, delivers approximately 300,000 treatment courses and conducts about 1.2 million consultations annually, with more than 1500 ongoing clinical trials. In a joint effort, the centers collected, translated, and compared the guidelines that had been put in place to treat patients with cancer during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cancer treatment is multidisciplinary and involves many specialties including surgery, radiology, pathology, radiation oncology, and medical oncology. Coordinating care among disciplines is a very complex process, Voest noted.


“Changing treatment also means that you need to reconsider capacities and requirements,” he said. “Hospitals have installed crisis teams that were very good at coordinating these efforts.”

Restructuring Care

Cancer care had to be reorganized on multiple levels, and the CCE centers looked at several aspects that needed to be accounted for, to ensure continuity in cancer care.

“The biggest challenge for the NHS and other healthcare systems is the surge of patients requiring oxygen and/or intensive care, and the nature and infectiousness of the virus,” said coauthor Carlos Caldas, MD, FMedSci, professor of cancer medicine at the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom. “In hospitals that are mostly run close to capacity, and where all kinds of patients are treated, this has created major resource and logistical problems.”

For regular clinical activities, the institutions with dedicated cancer centers (German Cancer Research Center, Institute Gustave Roussy, Istituto Nazionale dei Tumori di Milano, and Netherlands Cancer Institute) have attempted to stay COVID-19 free. This policy would in turn help ensure that sufficient clinical and intensive-care capacity could be reserved for critical cancer surgeries or management of treatment-related side effects, and allow hospitals outside of the CCE to transfer patients with cancer to these centers. The general hospitals can then focus on caring for patients with COVID-19, as well as other illnesses/injuries that require inpatient care.

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