Oncologists Lead Effort to Prepare for Future Disasters

June 28, 2019

A physician-led effort to better prepare for disasters is building momentum following a statewide conference, where multiple solutions were identified to ensure patients can seamlessly transfer to other areas for treatment.

The devastating effects of Hurricane Florence across North Carolina interrupted the treatment of cancer patients undergoing radiation therapy. In the wake of the hurricane, physicians from New Hanover Regional Medical Center and Cone Health have partnered to ensure statewide disaster preparation is in place for radiation oncology patients.

The goal is to establish disaster preparedness guidelines, protocols and a proactive radiation oncology network and safety net to minimize or eliminate the interruption of radiation treatment during future natural disasters or other catastrophic events.

“Cancer patients are a particularly vulnerable patient population and natural disasters can threaten the continuity of their care,” said Michael Papagikos, MD, radiation oncologist with NHRMC. “Treatment protocols are carefully designed to occur over a very specific time period. Radiation therapy, for example, is often scheduled daily for anywhere from 2 to 9 weeks.  It is very important that once patients start their treatment that they finish on schedule. When there are interruptions during a course of radiation, the effectiveness of the treatment can be compromised, resulting in worse outcomes.”

Dr. Papagikos and Matthew Manning, MD, interim chief of oncology for Cone Health, served as co-directors of the North Carolina Radiation Oncology Disaster Preparedness Conference. The event, which was established after Hurricane Florence, occurred June 22 in downtown Wilmington and drew more than 60 representatives from 27 counties across the Carolinas, bringing together industry leaders in healthcare, technology, and disaster management.

The conference presented an opportunity to identify and discuss solutions to ensure continued access to treatment, such as the creation of a statewide data sharing network for radiation oncology.

“Modern radiation therapy is very technologically advanced and the computer plans and data files that are required to treat patients are exceedingly large,” said Dr. Manning. “Transferring this data in a meaningful and scalable way from one impacted center to the many potential receiving centers during a disaster can result in delays in patients receiving their needed treatments.”

Other recommendations include the development of criteria to identify patients who would be at a higher risk if their radiation were to be interrupted and the development of best practices to harden radiation oncology centers so they can resume operations faster after a storm.

“It is also important we educate our patients on the importance of treatment continuity and talk with them about disaster management strategies,” said Dr. Manning.

“We will continue our work and coordination to prepare for the next disaster,” said Dr. Papagikos. “We need to be able to flip a switch and get patients transferred to other centers that haven’t been impacted. And we need to do that in a very quick, very efficient manner for a large number of patients.”