Throughout the evolving COVID-19 pandemic, Massachusetts General Hospital has implemented many changes to patient care. In a recent COVID-19 Virtual Seminar Series, Debra Burke, RN, senior vice president for patient care and chief nurse, David Ryan, MD, chief of the division of hematology/oncology and clinical director of the Mass General Cancer Center, and Zachary Wallace, MD, MSc, researcher in the Division of Rheumatology, Allergy and Immunology, discuss the permanent changes that have been made and the future of specialized patient care.

Virtual visits have just been phenomenal, and patients have appreciated them tremendously. We’ve created a centralized process that allows patients to get whatever they need to take care of their cancer closer to home.

David Ryan, MD 
Hematology/oncology chief and Mass General Cancer's clinical director

The Importance of Family in Patient Care

Important safety restrictions adopted during the pandemic means that most patients have had reduced access to visitors at the hospital. While necessary, this has been difficult for patients who lean on family members for support, and has highlighted just how important family can be in patient care.

“We’re privileged to have great doctors, diagnostics, treatments and amazing nurses. But family is so important to helping us take great care of patients,” says Dr. Wallace. Many teams around the hospital have worked to connect patients with loved ones through virtual tools like FaceTime and Zoom.

Providing Care More Efficiently

The swift move to telemedicine and virtual visits during the pandemic has shown the many ways that patient care can be more efficient. Telemedicine alone has proven to be beneficial for many patients by reducing commutes to a health care provider, expanding the number of patients that can be treated outside of Massachusetts and bringing all aspects of care closer to the patient’s home.

“Virtual visits have just been phenomenal, and patients have appreciated them tremendously,” says Dr. Ryan, who is a leader in providing accessible cancer care. “We’ve created a centralized process that allows patients to get whatever they need to take care of their cancer closer to home.” This centralized process includes getting and reviewing scans, prescriptions and other aspects of treatment without needing to come to Mass General Cancer Center directly.

For Dr. Wallace, who works with patients who have autoimmune diseases, the pandemic has encouraged his team to reconsider the frequency at which they perform certain tests, as well as the possibility of using existing treatments on patients with other conditions, including COVID-19.

Care Changed for the Better

While there have been, and still are, many challenges involved in adapting facilities and tools during the pandemic, many of these changes are for the better. The nursing team, who spend the most time directly with patients, has found many innovations that can improve patient care after the pandemic. Burke explains that innovations—such as extra-long IV tubing, using iPads on poles, automated chest compression devices and better tools to manage lab specimens—increase safety for both nurses and patients while maintaining a human connection. Burke mentions that many of these innovations had been in the pipeline for a long time, and the pandemic served as a catalyst to bring them to light.

While the adoption of technology has improved patient care in many ways, it has also improved collaboration among physicians. Platforms like Zoom have enabled easy connection between doctors at Mass General and the broader medical community around the world in ways that were not possible before.

In the Cancer Center specifically, Dr. Ryan notes that each disease center meets together several times a week to review patient cases throughout the entire Mass General Cancer Center network. “Everybody is getting the same expert care throughout the Mass General community. We’re all going over each other’s scans. We’re all commenting on the same cases. When you come to Mass General, you’re not just getting a doctor’s wisdom, you're getting the collective wisdom of all the experts at Mass General.”