Pioneering Initiatives to Modernize Cancer Care
January 28, 2022
New developments aim to improve clinical outcomes for cancer patients.
For years, Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center has been recognized as a leader in cancer research and treatment, pioneering advances in medical oncology, surgical oncology, radiation oncology, and personalized patient care. John Sweetenham, M.D., Professor of Internal Medicine and the Associate Director for Clinical Affairs at Simmons Cancer Center, is part of a group of experts at UT Southwestern heading initiatives aimed at improving clinical outcomes in cancer patients.
“Our recent efforts, including organizational changes, building expansion, and new models of health care delivery, are revolutionizing research, clinical care, and public health,” Dr. Sweetenham says. As a global expert in strategic planning for innovative cancer care delivery models, Dr. Sweetenham believes these and other forthcoming reforms will keep Simmons at the forefront of cancer breakthroughs, even during times of uncertainty.
Confronting Uncertainty During COVID-19
The medical consequences of COVID-19 prompted rapid changes in health care delivery and initiated COVID-related policies, which minimized the deferral of cancer diagnosis, work-up, and treatment. Evidence indicates cancer patients are at higher risk of developing SARS-CoV-2 infection compared with the general population.
Remarkably, most patients at Simmons Cancer Center continued active treatment during the beginning stages of the pandemic. The rapid development and implementation of new services, including fewer in-person visits and an increase in virtual care and telemedicine, allowed for strategic adjustments in operations to address patient care demands.
“Unlike other cancer centers, we continued to allow visitors for patients undergoing active treatment during the pandemic,” Dr. Sweetenham says. “Our patient satisfaction scores and clinical trial enrollment have remained high, despite reduced in-person visits.”
A number of innovative new surgical initiatives at UT Southwestern are leading the way to improved surgical outcomes and increased patient satisfaction.
New Models of Health Care Delivery
In August 2020, Simmons Cancer Center launched the Simmons Acute Care (SAC) unit to provide outpatient treatment for acute illnesses related to cancer or cancer treatment. Advanced practice providers work closely with the primary medical team to manage cancer and treatment-related side effects, ensuring continuity of care by providers who understand the clinical needs of patients with cancer.
“The SAC unit integrates an innovative health care delivery model with exceptional clinical care. Our most recent successes are a testament to the highly collaborative nature of our Center,” Dr. Sweetenham says.
Since its launch, SAC has reduced emergency department visits and allowed patients to receive supportive care, such as infusions and transfusion support, medication administration, and wound care by appointment.
Radiation Oncology Building Expansion
A leader in the field of radiation oncology, Simmons Cancer Center is a pioneer in adaptive therapy, which combines real-time, high-resolution imaging and modern radiation therapy to deliver ultraprecise treatment that can be customized to changes in patients’ anatomy and tumor size.
With the recent completion of Simmons’ 71,000- square-foot expansion of radiation oncology services, the Cancer Center has ushered in several new technologies, including two Varian Ethos systems that combine artificial intelligence and adaptive therapy; two Elekta Unity MR-Linac systems to provide precise and personalized radiation therapy; two Varian Halcyon systems to optimize image-guided radiotherapy; and RefleXion equipment to provide biology-guided radiotherapy.
“These adaptive machines not only provide precise image-guidance to tumors, they realign and reshape radiation treatment to the borders of the tumor as it changes, meaning we’ll be able to better target tumors and avoid healthy tissue,” says Robert Timmerman, M.D., Professor and Interim Chair of Radiation Oncology as well as Professor of Neurosurgery.
Simmons Cancer Center has plans to take the technology further by combining it with artificial intelligence to create even more effective and highly personalized treatments, called PULSAR, now being investigated in brain cancer and rectal cancer clinical trials. (PULSAR stands for personalized ultrafractionated stereotactic adaptive radiotherapy.)
Taking Surgery to the Next Level
A number of innovative new surgical initiatives at UT Southwestern are leading the way to improved surgical outcomes and increased patient satisfaction. For example, in 2020, we became the second academic medical center in the U.S. to begin using “OR Black Box” technology to help fuse patient outcomes data with audiovisual tools to provide a new way of reviewing surgical cases.
Participating in this pilot program is Herbert Zeh, M.D., Professor and Chair of Surgery and an innovator and leader in the field of pancreatic diseases and pancreatic cancer. In fact, Dr. Zeh has performed more Whipple procedures for pancreatic cancer than anyone in the U.S. He says the OR Black Box system advances opportunities to improve surgeons’ skills, optimize surgical team orchestration, improve preparedness and efficiency in the operating room, and advance training for residents, fellows, and medical students.