Providence Newberg Medical Center is home to a new pilot program that uses video conferencing technology to better serve oncology patients

Connecting cancer patients with resources and providing them with emotional and psychological support is a vital part of treatment at Providence Newberg Medical Center, but because Providence’s oncology social workers are based at St. Vincent’s in Portland, it’s not always easy.

In the past, it’s mostly been done over the phone with patients who weren’t able to travel to Portland, which isn’t very personal either. by: SETH GORDON - A more personal approach - Providence Newberg Cancer Clinic director Marlene Sisson speaks with St. Vincent's oncology social worker Erin Leake via the TeleHealth video conferencing pilot program, which provides patients a more personal link to services not available on site in Newberg.

That’s why Providence installed TeleHealth, a video conferencing service that is being tested in Newberg before it’s installed in Providence’s six other remote cancer clinic offices.

“Essentially, I was a stranger kind of cold calling them,” oncology social worker Erin Leake said. “What we found was that when we were able to have the staff bring them into a room in the clinic and introduce me via the computer as a part of the care team, then the patients were really able to see what it was that we were offering and relate to me as person as opposed to just a voice on the phone.”

Due to privacy laws, getting a system up and running was a bit more complicated that visiting a video conferencing website like Skype, but after proposing the idea last February, the service was first used by patients in Newberg in September.

Providence opted to utilize one computer, located in a private office, that is dedicated solely to the video conferencing service, meaning it doesn’t have access to the hospital’s online medical record or email systems.

In addition to having good cameras, microphones and speakers to provide a quality forum for patients and social workers to interact, the computers are also set to “wipe” any information from the video conference after each session.

One of the services that TeleHealth enables social workers to provide is a clinical evaluation for anxiety and depression, which are common problems for cancer patients during treatment. Being able to see the patient’s reactions and body language, as well as giving them a more personal interaction, now makes this possible, whereas it simply wasn’t done before over the telephone.

“It also helps us then connect with the patient and develop a follow up plan, whether that’s more sessions via the TeleHealth or occasionally we will make a plan to meet with someone in person,” Leake said. “The video piece has been really helpful for the counseling aspect of our role.”

Most of the time the clinic has patients use TeleHealth when they’re already scheduled at the office to receive treatment or speak with a doctor, but when unforeseen needs arise, providers at the clinic can simply call Leake or her colleague Shelley Sherlock to see if they are available, just as if they were in the same building.

“That’s been really nice to have that immediate response to a need,” Leake said. “It’s almost always the needs that you don’t anticipate in a clinic that are the most difficult to respond to.”

Leake said the response from patients who have used the service has been extremely positive and that PNMC will roll out a formal patient survey soon that will help the hospital streamline the system before it is implemented at other offices, but that there is not a specific timeline to do so.

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