Yukon will likely stop receiving visiting oncologists next summer as telehealth services replace face-to-face encounters, according to the BC Cancer Agency.
Cancer patients in the Yukon will instead meet with their oncologists in British Columbia through a video link, or they will travel to Vancouver to meet with them in person, if necessary.
Kim Chi, a medical director with the BC Cancer Agency, said videoconferencing with patients in rural and remote areas, including the Yukon, has been happening for years. In many cases, he said, it gives patients a better level of care than waiting for weeks or months to see a visiting oncologist.
Currently, an oncologist visits Whitehorse once every three months.
“It’s become a bit of an anachronism, in a sense,” Chi said. “With the video link, I can go up to Whitehorse any day of the week.”
He said the agency will likely organize four more visits to Whitehorse, with the last visit taking place sometime next summer.
About 50 Yukon cancer patients saw a visiting oncologist this year. One of them, Shakir Alwarid, said he’s very concerned about the changes.
“It’s really important to see the oncologist face-to-face,” he said. “The personal contact is really important.”
He said he heard about the plan from a visiting oncologist in September. At the time, his own doctor didn’t even know about the change.
“The doctor didn’t know. The patients don’t know. What’s going on here?” he said.
Pat Living, a spokesperson with the Department of Health and Social Services, confirmed that the BC Cancer Agency has recommended that oncologists no longer travel to the Yukon. But in an email to the News, she wrote, “No decision has been made at this point” by the Yukon government.
Still, Chi said consultation with the Yukon government is something of a formality, and this change will likely go ahead as planned.
“For sure it’s distressing to hear, and people may think it’s a loss of service, but I really don’t think of it that way,” he said.
He said that oncologists are often specialized in certain types of cancer, so the single physician who visits Whitehorse every three months might not be best-suited to treat every Yukon patient.
And visiting oncologists aren’t a good fit for urgent cases. “If you get a cancer diagnosis, you’re not waiting for an oncologist to see you for three months,” Chi said.
He said videoconferencing is already used across rural British Columbia and in the Yukon. He has several patients that he treats in Whitehorse, though he has never travelled here in person.
“Telehealth for the delivery of oncology services in Yukon has been in use successfully for some time and will continue,” Living wrote in her email.
James Low, a spokesperson for the Yukon Hospital Corporation, said cancer care in the territory has improved recently, thanks to a group of four local general practitioners who are specially trained in oncology. The team has been in place for two years. Low said the hospital also has specialist nurses to provide chemotherapy treatment, a cancer care navigator and a dedicated pharmacist on staff.
Alison Freeman, president of the Yukon Medical Association, agrees. “I think (patients) get incredible care here through our GP oncology team.”
She said newly diagnosed patients will typically travel to B.C. to meet with an oncologist, who will decide on their treatment program. Back in Whitehorse, the local physicians can order chemotherapy and monitor patients for side effects. If there are any problems, patients and physicians can videoconference with the oncologist in Vancouver at any point.
“I think it’s initially disconcerting when you’re speaking to a TV screen,” Freeman said, acknowledging that the transition can be especially difficult for elderly people.
But she doesn’t see the end of visiting oncologists as a loss for the territory.
“I think it’s more important that (patients) speak to the oncologist directly that is the specialist in their form of cancer,” she said. “In some ways, it could actually lead to better care.”
Contact Maura Forrest at firstname.lastname@example.org