Published in Health Care

Collaborative cancer treatment network advances despite pandemic slowdown

BY Sunday, July 19, 2020 05:58pm

Since announcing plans late last year to integrate cancer care, Mercy Health and Metro Health-University of Michigan Health have steadily proceeded on how exactly the Cancer Network of West Michigan will operate despite a slowdown related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Still, the goal for the network remains the same: Collaborate on cancer care in Grand Rapids and Muskegon, build on the expertise of each organization, and elevate the level of care they offer.

Left: Dr. Jill Onesti, right: Dr. Susan Sharpe COURTESY PHOTOS

Organized as a joint venture, the network provides a vehicle for greater collaboration between Mercy Health, Metro Health and University of Michigan Health System’s Michigan Medicine in Ann Arbor for treating cancer patients, accessing advanced treatments and trials, and conducting research.

“We’re not going to have individual silos that act in competition with each other. We are really drawing on each other’s strengths and seeing if there is a way to consolidate best care in one particular focus, then how do we make that be the best care possible,” said Dr. Jill Onesti, medical director for the surgical oncology department at Mercy Health Saint Mary’s in Grand Rapids.

Onesti, who specializes in treating cancers of the gastrointestinal tract, has been working with Dr. Susan Sharpe on planning care protocols for their particular areas. Sharpe is a Metro Health surgical oncologist who specializes in the treatment of skin cancer and soft tissue tumors.

Sharpe joined Metro Health in May after five years at the MetroHealth Medical Center in Cleveland. She was drawn to Grand Rapids by the opportunity to help shape the cancer network and to collaborate with peers.

“This is just another way to not just improve cancer care but to improve the health care system in general, and that is a wonderful opportunity with what they’re doing in western Michigan and I wanted to be a part of that,” Sharpe said. “I like the idea about collaboration between institutions, rather than competition.”

Switching gears

Formation of the cancer network that will treat patients at three locations in Grand Rapids and Muskegon remains “still in the pretty early stages” after it was slowed during pandemic this spring and summer, Onesti said.

The partnering health systems hope to begin the collaboration yet this summer, referring patients to one another for different aspects of their treatment and collaborating on patient treatment plans.

Moving slower in the planning process because of the pandemic has “forced us all to switch gears” and do more with virtual medicine and virtual communication, Onesti said.

“We’re hopeful that we have actually expanded ways that we can work together,” she said.

The Cancer Network of West Michigan will provide treatment at the Lacks Cancer Center at Mercy Health Saint Mary’s in Grand Rapids, Mercy Health Muskegon’s Johnson Family Cancer Center, and Metro Health Hospital in Wyoming.

The three facilities combined treat more than 13,000 cancer patients annually. Clinicians at each health system will provide care with the support of Michigan Medicine’s Rogel Cancer Center in Ann Arbor, which can also provide highly specialized cancer care for patients who need it.

Whichever location patients seek care from or are referred to, they will get the same level of standardized, evidence-based care where clinicians follow the same protocols.

“Not only are the options increased, but variation will be decreased. The treatment, the diagnosis, the protocols, they will be state of the art, evidence-based and standard throughout all three sites,” said Metro Health President and CEO Peter Hahn.

The network will initially focus on five forms of cancer: breast, thoracic or lung, gastrointestinal tract (colon pancreas, gastric), skin, and gynecological oncology, Hahn said. Executives also have been actively recruiting physicians, such as Sharpe, to Grand Rapids in specialty areas, Hahn said.

The cancer network will eventually expand into collaborating on treating other forms of cancers such as neuro oncology and others “that we’re really looking hard at,” Hahn said.

“We’ve been discussing that this network, over the next year or two, will truly become comprehensive,” Hahn said. “We want to make sure those five initial areas are truly world-class and that we get them going and achieving that before we go outside of those initial five.”

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