Recognizing that cancer is not a monolith and often involves other underlying conditions, a Delaware-based cancer center is extending the care it provides beyond the dreaded disease.
Earlier this month, the Helen F. Graham Cancer Center & Research Institute at ChristianaCare announced it had opened a primary care practice onsite in Wilmington in January. The main goal is to connect cancer patients with a primary care provider if they don’t already have one, during the course of their treatment.
Cancer patients don’t just have cancer — they may have diabetes, hypertension, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, said Dr. Nicholas J. Petrelli, the Bank of America endowed medical director at the Graham Cancer Center, in an email. This means they require care and support beyond the cancer treatment itself.
An informal survey conducted by the cancer center revealed that a significant number of patients who were coming in for their treatment didn’t have a primary care provider.
Instead of having to refer patients out externally, ChrisitanaCare officials decided to bring the service in-house.
“We thought, why not make it convenient for the patients and convenient for the oncologists?” Petrelli said.
Now, oncologists can refer patients to primary care provider and registered nurse Debra Delaney, who recently joined the team at the Graham Cancer Center. If the patient doesn’t have access to primary care, Delaney steps into that role during treatment, Petrelli explained. Patients can then choose whether they want to stay with her once their treatment is over or ask Delaney for a referral to another primary care practice.
“What we’re intending to do here is provide a person-centered approach to cancer care, much like we have seen in other specialties — for example, heart failure patients and patients with special needs,” said Dr. Cydney Teal, chair of the family and community medicine department and primary care service line leader at ChristianaCare, in an email. “We want to create a holistic approach to care because cancer has become a chronic disease.”
Teal’s description of cancer as a chronic disease isn’t one doctor’s opinion. In fact as cancer survival rates have improved, survivors have to manage the aftereffects of the disease and potential relapses. This has made the role of primary care even more important for cancer patients.
Having a primary care practice onsite enables the oncologists to partner with Delaney to co-manage the patient through the acute phase of their cancer treatment and into the chronic phase, Teal added.
About 60 cancer center patients have been referred to Delaney so far.
But patients aren’t the only ones benefiting. Delaney is also given the opportunity to learn about head and neck, pancreatic, esophageal and lung cancers, Petrelli said.
“It helps her with the knowledge base and will also help her connect with potential patients,” he said.
Looking ahead, the Graham Cancer Center plans to continue to build the practice. ChristianaCare leaders are also considering creating a fellowship program specializing in primary care and oncology.
“There are so many nuances and technologies to keep up with,” Teal said. “To know we have oncology subject matter experts in primary care would really be phenomenal and help expand the repertoire of our primary care workforce.”
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