Virtual support groups help children with cancer during Covid-19 pandemic

A new study examined the impact of virtual psychoeducation on cancer and blood disease patients during the Covid-19 pandemic.These virtual support groups were also designed to help patients’ parents and siblings.However, while beneficial for the participants, the groups also presented some challenges.

A new study has found that virtual support groups can reduce stress, minimize feelings of isolation and generally improve the lives of children with cancer or serious blood disorders. The children’s families were also better able to cope with illness-related stressors.

The study published in Pediatric Blood and Cancer highlights the transformation process, barriers and lessons learned in the future post-pandemic to maintain seamless care for patients and their families in a Canadian-based cohort.

Provide psychosocial support

With Zoom for Healthcare, the researchers developed six virtual support structures. The first was a 60-minute virtual group held once a week for six weeks for patients with blood disorders aged eight-15 years. This virtual meeting focused on themes such as the effect of the disease on school and family, peer relationships and coping with challenging emotions.

The second virtual group was a monthly gathering for siblings of newly diagnosed patients, aimed at increasing understanding of the disease and connecting with health care providers. The third was a workshop for health care providers with psycho-educational strategies, promoting healthy eating and sleeping habits during treatment and supporting the children with medication and medical procedures.

The fourth group was a weekly Zoom meeting for teens and siblings to reflect and share problems they encountered about their own or their sibling’s treatment path using photography. The fifth virtual group was a weekly community for teens at every stage of their cancer experience. It included psychoeducational and peer support components, allowing teens to find commonalities and share coping strategies. The last group was a camp-style program that connected children, teens and families through activities such as peer support, talent shows and virtual campfires.

Observations

The study found that in the virtual meetings, those who previously did not attend face-to-face sessions could now participate from homes in remote locations, cars and hospital beds.

The researchers also found that siblings who were unable to visit the hospital due to Covid-19 restrictions could still benefit from supportive and educational interactions through the Zoom sessions.

However, virtual sessions tended to exclude families with poor access to reliable high-speed internet; those who did not have the necessary electronic devices; and people of lower socioeconomic background with limited digital literacy or English language skills.

“For the future, we must consider the unique characteristics and needs of our patients and families, including social determinants of health, digital literacy and language diversity. Healthcare providers and hospitals share a responsibility to advocate for equal access to virtual care and to support patients and families on virtual group opportunities,” the authors wrote.

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