By Catalina Guran
The last thing a patient with a cancer diagnosis wants to hear is that their treatment is going to be delayed.
Fortunately, that wasn’t a message that Dr. Parneet Cheema and her oncology colleagues at William Osler Health System (Osler) had to deliver to their patients, thanks to an organizational commitment to continue to prioritize cancer care throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
What the team hadn’t anticipated, yet wasn’t surprised by, was a 14 per cent growth in the number of new case consultations for systemic treatment (i.e., chemotherapy, immunotherapy), in 2020/21 compared to 2019/20. The program also experienced a 19 per cent increase in the number of intravenous chemotherapy visits in 2021/22 compared to the previous year.
As Osler’s Medical Director of Cancer Care, Dr. Cheema attributes the growth of new cases to several factors, including a burgeoning population and an increased awareness within the community of Osler’s comprehensive cancer care services. Additionally, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some patients either did not seek, or delayed cancer screening and/or treatment, which often led to more advanced disease and complexity when they eventually did present at their appointments.
“I’m proud of our entire oncology team that has really stepped up to manage the increasing patient volumes, and who continue to ensure patients feel confident and safe when accessing care,” says Dr. Cheema, whose team acted quickly to adopt COVID-19 safety protocols and a mix of face-to-face and virtual options to assess and treat cancer patients. “Our team was quick to support the pandemic response as our oncologists, nurse practitioners and nurses safely managed the complex care of inpatients with both a cancer and COVID-19 diagnosis.”
Investments in additional skilled nursing and clerical staff have been instrumental in enhancing Osler’s program to meet the demands of the community. That support has also been key to continuing cancer-related surgeries during the pandemic through the use of an ethical framework.
As one of Canada’s busiest community hospitals, Osler serves more than 1.3 million residents across five sites, in one of the fastest growing and most culturally diverse regions in Ontario. Over the next 20 years, the number of cancer cases in the region is expected to double.
This rapid growth is one of the many reasons Osler has built up its cancer care services in recent years to include innovative immunotherapy, advanced surgical techniques, and access to global clinical trials for new anticancer treatments. Osler is also proud to be the first community hospital in the world to offer genetic testing through rapid comprehensive next generation sequencing which can provide important information on how to treat one’s cancer in days instead of weeks. This technology was amazingly developed during the pandemic under the leadership of Osler’s Dr. Brandon Sheffield, Pathologist and Physician Lead, Research.
Many of these advancements were supported by the fundraising efforts of Dr. Cheema and Dr. Sheffield, both of whom are actively involved with William Osler Health System Foundation (Osler Foundation), where Dr. Cheema also sits on the Board of Directors. As co-chairs of Osler Foundation’s Gala Benefit Concert fundraiser in 2019, which focused on cancer care at Osler, the pair helped raise more than $978,000 to help purchase equipment across Osler’s three main sites.
“Referrals are growing as word of Osler’s comprehensive cancer care services continues to spread and patients increasingly seek cancer care closer to home,” says Dr. Cheema, who notes that Osler recently received $3M from the Ontario Government to support planning for expanded cancer care services in Brampton that would address the growing need for radiation therapy in the region. “As we work towards the vision of cancer care closer to home, we remain grateful to our partner radiation facilities that have continued to ensure Osler patients have uninterrupted access to radiation therapy throughout the pandemic.”
Dr. Cheema also praises her team for their dedication to cancer care for patients. “Everyone has gone above and beyond during this pandemic to see and assess patients, book them into treatments, sustain those treatments and maintain the necessary COVID-19 protocols to ensure immune-compromised patients feel safe throughout their care. Their commitment is truly inspiring.”
Catalina Guran is Senior Manager, Public Relations | Strategic Communication at William Osler Health Centre.