Christian Otto, MD is the Director of Teleoncology at Memorial Sloan Kettering (MSK) and was most recently a senior scientist at NASA. In this Q&A, he tells us about his eclectic career path — and how he envisions teleoncology improving patient care throughout MSK, including its outpatient cancer center in West Harrison:
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.
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. This capacity optimizes the patients’ time for their greatest convenience while they continue to receive our quality subspecialty care. Our ultimate goal is to bring telemedicine visits right into the patient’s home.
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. Home monitoring also provides an opportunity to help patients better manage their symptoms. We’re now seeing survival benefits from patient monitoring. A study 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.
How is telemedicine used at MSK?
Our genetic counselors offer tele-consultations, in addition to the counseling televisits at MSK Westchester. Follow-up visits are also very conducive to telemedicine. You could even have family members on the other side of the country participating in their loved one’s sessions.
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.
How do you address a person’s concerns about telemedicine?
I can understand the reluctance. Cancer treatment can be intensive and make people feel unwell. 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 see the benefits.
Learn more about Memorial Sloan Kettering’s outpatient cancer center in West Harrison at www.mskcc.org/westchester.
Photo caption: Dr. Christian Otto says telemedicine allows specialists to monitor patients and intervene quickly if complications arise.