Likewise, in post-COVID supportive care, social workers, psychologists, and financial counselors, among others, are often counseling patients and their loved ones who join them the comfort of their own homes. While travel and waiting time are no longer concerns, we recognize the importance of uncovering different challenges with use of technologies for virtual supportive care.

Months into the COVID pandemic, virtual supportive care feels familiar for many patients and professionals, alike. Despite many becoming accustomed to this new way of providing and receiving supportive care and realizing apparent benefits, many questions remain. Key questions center on how virtual supportive care works, for whom it works and why, and for whom it does not work and why. Among the questions that concern us most are those of access, equity, trust, and comfort.

Virtual supportive care is, for those who have internet access and skills to use computers and other devices, probably more comfortable and more useful in most instances. However, we need to determine the extent to which access to the internet and devices along with technology skills influence people’s acceptance and use of virtual supportive cancer care.

Telehealth and virtual care of any kind are not available to all, in part because of a persistent Digital Divide. Factors driving the Digital Divide in the United States are economic and educational, cultural and social. Knowing more about how factors in the Digital Divide shape people’s experience of virtual supportive care is essential to improving access and care.

Access to technology and a basis for trust are key to Telehealth. We know that generation, family finances, and other factors make connecting via the internet difficult for many people in cities, towns, and rural communities. We need to learn about how various technologies – including devices like smartphones and platforms like BlueJeans – and relationships between people living with cancer and cancer care professionals affect virtual supportive care.

We are a team of nurses, social workers, and healthcare administrators who recognized that the shift to virtual supportive cancer care is generating many questions that must be answered. We partnered across our university’s Abramson Cancer Center and School of Nursing to study the experience of virtual supportive cancer care from the perspectives of the person living with cancer, along with their caregivers, and the professionals providing that care. Invitations to participate in our ViSuCaRe study will reach thousands of people living with cancer and hundreds of cancer care professionals. Our Cancer Center covers parts of two states and serves people living in urban, suburban, and rural communities in those states.

We are inviting people treated across the ten sites that make up our center, their loved ones, and our cancer care professionals to complete surveys about virtual care. They also have an opportunity to complete an interview to tell their stories. The interviews, already underway, are revealing many important details of their perspectives on virtual supportive care and how it compares to care that occurs face-to-face. We expect many people who were diagnosed with cancer before March to be able to compare their experience of supportive care before and after the pandemic, sharing insights found in their reflections. Similarly, the professionals who provide that care are able to make the same sort of comparison. We anticipate gaining information and perspective as members of both groups complete surveys and interviews.

Our team already knows we want supportive cancer care – whether face-to-face or virtual – to be possible for all. Making that goal a reality means we need this study and other research to provide evidence. Scientific evidence generated by the ViSuCaRe and other studies is critical to show health systems like ours and insurance companies why and how supportive care helps people as they live with and after cancer. The data we gather from patients, caregivers, and cancer care professionals across our Cancer Center sites will help us interpret experiences and the connections between people living with cancer and the professionals providing them supportive care. What results is key to moving forward, making sure supportive care is available, accessible, and helpful for everyone who needs it.

Byline: Sarah H. Kagan PhD, RN for the ViSuCaRe Study Team (Rachel Benenson, Elise Canale, Jane Evered, Bobby Goodacre, Mary Pat Lynch, G.J. Melendez-Torres, David Miller, Heather Sheaffer, Clare Whitney, and Lindsey Zinck) at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, Abramson Cancer Center at the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of Exeter

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