One of the reasons I wake up inspired is because our agency specializes in strategic communications across healthcare, which means we see how technology, people and organizations intersect to save lives and improve the standard of care. Nowhere is that more present than in the field of oncology.
The way we treat cancer has evolved substantially in the last five years alone. Advances often begin with fundamental, basic science in the lab and can ultimately result in longer, healthier lives for patients. Communicators play a vital role in educating the public on these advances: pointing people toward resources, rallying them where needed and tackling areas of misunderstanding. Communications around cancer are vital because breakthroughs are occurring so quickly yet confounded because most individuals don’t research cancer until they enter clubs no one wants to join: the societies of cancer patients or cancer-concerned loved ones.
Healthcare communicators must hold fast to the same core principles:
Education. Do you provide easy-to-digest information that a lay person can understand?
Inclusivity. Do you communicate openly and sensitively? Are you aware of ways in which you may appear inaccessible or biased?
Support. Do your communications vehicles provide support and offer help where you can? The same goes for the way you address many of your key audiences: clinicians and staff, patients and caregivers, and the community.
Connection. Are you connecting people to resources within your organization, data-driven expert insights, groups and communities? Are you doing so in an authentic, human way and keeping dignity at the center of every touchpoint?
"Science isn't finished until it's communicated." — Sir Mark Walport
These guiding principles are essential with so many issues at the forefront of oncology today. Here are just a few major trends we’ve worked with clients to address.
COVID-19. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has led to some delayed diagnosis and treatment, among so many other challenges it has unleashed on the medical community and all of us. Cancer doesn’t wait, even during a worldwide pandemic. Therefore, communicating to patients about the importance (and safety) of their screenings and appointments is paramount.
On the flip side, COVID-19 has forced providers to deliver care in new ways, like telemedicine and digital health apps. One cancer patient I know says she feels less isolated as an immunocompromised person; ironically, now everyone is more conscientious of spreading illness, so she’s no longer alone in acting extra-cautious.
Precision medicine. The future of healthcare is precision medicine – and, in some cases, it’s also the present for treating cancer. It means finding the right treatments for the right patients at the right time. Clinicians can now pair individual treatments with individual patients’ needs and biomarkers – everything from their genomic profile to their personal history, age, test results and other key traits can inform the path ahead. It allows for custom treatment plans and can help doctors predict whether one course or another will be successful. Immunotherapy is another incredibly promising treatment, aimed at enlisting the patient’s own immune system to treat disease.
Another type of precision medicine focuses on treatment based on mutation, not location – just one of many examples of personalized medicine moving from theory into therapies. Clinicians can now treat patients acutely and accurately based on the genomic properties of their cancer, not simply the location in the body where the cancer originates.
Screening, detection and prevention. The ways in which we can learn about prevention and screen for cancer has evolved. It’s critical for leaders in the space to communicate current recommendations (e.g., the HPV vaccine) and for patients to be aware of options like liquid biopsies, 3-D skin screenings, and more.
Basic science. We often learn about advances when we see an FDA approval. But we must consider what precedes these. It’s pioneering research and patients and clinicians who participate in clinical trials. It’s also a lot of basic science that forms the basis for translational research and underpins the novel treatments. Basic science is often misunderstood and risks underfunding, so it deserves our attention and amplification as communicators.
Overcoming disparities. Everyone should have access to superior care, especially when confronting cancer. Unfortunately, disparities in this field are ever-present: from clinician/leadership representation and diversity, to enrolling more (and more diverse) participants in clinical trials, to multi-lingual informed consent for trials, to affordability, trust and accessibility. For some – and particularly BIPOC / LGBTQIA+ people – a cancer diagnosis can disproportionately impact their ability to work and maintain income, leading to heartbreaking challenges, like having to decide deciding whether to pay for medicine or groceries. Inequities can contribute to later diagnoses, ability to adhere to treatment or barriers in care that we must better understand to overcome. Addressing disparities in cancer means thinking about every level: local, national, global, employer, payer, provider and academic. And we need to communicate sensitively to make real progress.
Pediatrics. Childhood cancer fortunately remains relatively rare, and the way it’s treated has improved leaps and bounds. Yet many adult therapies aren’t approved for pediatric indications for years after their initial approval. Leaders in the space are bridging this gap through innovative trial design and precision medicine. They also understand that treating pediatric cancers involve far more than clinical interventions and provide an array of services for families, from pre-diagnosis to long-term survivorship support.
We hope that more and more cancers can be eliminated, cured, prevented or managed. We are buoyed by healthcare heroes who infuse quality, innovation and true “care” into their lifesaving work. And as communicators, we support this by crystallizing complex messages to help people understand their options, challenges and opportunities across the field of oncology.