When Atlantic Health System put telehealth into effect to help control the spread of COVID-19, I thought, I’m going to hate it. I felt strongly that there’s no substitute for in-person visits, and expected that trying to communicate using video apps would be cumbersome. So I was surprised to find that there are some real benefits to virtual medicine.

I noticed, for example, a higher level of intimacy between me and my patients. They see me in my home environment and I see them in theirs. One morning, a patient’s daughter who is home from college popped her face in front of the camera to say hi. It’s been great meeting family members (including pets) that I’ve only heard about before.

I’ll have a cup of coffee in my hand, my patient sitting at her kitchen table, family members sometimes ambling across the screen. It’s two women having a chat, working toward a common goal. I think people show their true personalities when they’re comfortable in their own space. It just feels more relaxed.

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I now spend half the week seeing patients in the office, where we have an infusion center, and the other half doing virtual visits from home. At Overlook Medical Center, doctors are working in teams to ensure weekday coverage. The two teams don’t overlap as another precaution to prevent the risk of the virus spreading.

I’m able to schedule the appointments over the course of the whole day and sometimes into the evening, not just 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., so it’s more flexible. That has allowed me to spend more time with each of them. Virtual medicine is of course not ideal, and I look forward to returning to face-to-face encounters when the pandemic is behind us. In the meantime, my patients and I will continue their wellness journey from the comforts of home.    

Virtual Support

The new coronavirus is spreading not only illness, but fear. This can be especially true for people going through chemotherapy and immunotherapy. Many of my patients find solace in their support groups, yet COVID-19 prevents them from getting together. Overlook Medical Center, and all Atlantic Health System cancer programs, understand how important the support group connections are, and have created virtual versions of these meetings. For more information on virtual support groups and programs for cancer patients and caregivers, visit atlantichealth.org/cancerclass

Dr. Bonni Lee Guerin is a hematologist/oncologist and director of Breast Cancer Treatment and Prevention for Atlantic Medical Group and Overlook Medical Center in Summit, New Jersey. Dr. Guerin is the principal investigator of numerous clinical trials for breast cancer management and is the lead investigator for Cancer Care Delivery Research with the Atlantic Health Cancer Consortium – New Jersey’s only National Cancer Institute Community Oncology Research Program (NCORP).  She also treats patients with melanoma and kidney cancer using highly-specialized immunotherapy.