What Is Telemedicine and How Can It Help People with Cancer?

MSK’s Director of Teleoncology Christian Otto

MSK Director of Teleoncology Christian Otto says telemedicine allows specialists to monitor patients and intervene quickly if complications arise.

Christian Otto is MSK’s Director of Teleoncology and was most recently a senior scientist at NASA. Here, he tells us about his eclectic career path — and how he envisions teleoncology improving patient care at MSK.

What is telemedicine?

Telemedicine is the use of electronic communications to provide care to patients without an in-person visit. It’s used for evaluation, diagnosis, treatment, and follow-up visits via secure real-time connections or email. Teleoncology is the technology applied to cancer care.

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How does telemedicine make life easier for patients?

It improves their experience and ability to recuperate by limiting their travel. One pilot program we’ve just started is adding video-conferencing units to the infusion chairs at MSK Westchester so that when patients come in for chemo, they can also have a private counseling session. This could work for other services as well, like nutrition or social work. Our ultimate goal is to do telemedicine visits from a patient’s own home.

Telemedicine is the use of electronic communications to provide care to patients without an in-person visit.
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What are some other benefits of telemedicine?

You’re able to monitor patients and intervene quickly, so you can prevent them from getting sicker to the point where they need to be admitted to the hospital. We’re also now seeing survival benefits. A study done that was presented at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology showed that compared with a group of patients receiving in-person care, patients who received tele-home monitoring of cancer symptoms had a five-month increase in survival, an improved quality of life, and fewer visits to the Urgent Care Center.

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How is telemedicine used at MSK?

Christian Otto at NASA Mission Control

Christian Otto in NASA Mission Control. Dr. Otto tracked astronauts using telemedicine when he worked for NASA.

Our genetic counselors offer tele-consultations, in addition to the counseling televisits at MSK Westchester and MSK Basking Ridge. Follow-up visits are also very conducive to telemedicine. You can teach patients to manage their symptoms. You could also have family members on the other side of the country participating in their loved one’s sessions.

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What sparked your interest in telemedicine?

As an emergency medicine and family doctor, primary care is the bedrock of my background, but I’d also become interested in remote medicine. I spent time in Antarctica working with the National Science Foundation, which led me to work at NASA on a program looking at intracranial pressure in astronauts. We used telemedicine to collect data from crew members.

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How do you address a person’s concerns about telemedicine?

I can understand the reluctance. This is intensive medicine with very sick people. It’s incumbent on us to educate our colleagues, develop successful programs, and promote the success of those programs. That said, I’ve been struck by how interested the patients are. They will say, “I don’t have to travel?” “I don’t have to ask my daughter to take time off work?” I think patients quickly do the math and see the benefits.

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Dr. Otto is a shining star at MSK.

Dear Sheila, thank you for your comment.

Well stated Dr. Otto. Combing technology and healthcare improves access to care, lowers the cost of care, which ultimately improves the overall quality of the care. With today's technological advancements we have the ability to change(in a good way) the way healthcare is delivered. A great benefit for all.