The UC Davis Health Cancer Care Network extends National Cancer Institute-designated expertise to community hospitals — and helps university researchers to advance new therapies.

Cancer is grueling enough, both physically and emotionally. But when you live in a less-urban area it can be logistically punishing as well, demanding hours of back-and-forth travel of those who require or would benefit from leading-edge care.

The UC Davis Health Cancer Care Network helps to address that challenge by linking community oncologists around the Central Valley and Sierra Nevada with UC Davis cancer specialists through telemedicine. The unique partnership, which offers both consultation services and access to clinical trials, allows patients to receive academically-driven care near home through local hospital-based cancervcenters.

Ridgecrest Regional Hospital in the northern Mojave Desert is the latest hospital to join the network, through an expansion announced earlier this year. Other members include the Rideout Cancer Center in the Sacramento Valley community of Marysville; Mercy UC Davis Cancer Center in Merced; the AIS Cancer Center at Adventist Health Bakersfield; and the Gene Upshaw Memorial Tahoe Forest Cancer Center in Truckee.

Ridgecrest CEO Jim Suver witnessed the network in action while working in a previous role at Fremont-Rideout (now Rideout), and remembered the experience when he later took the reins at 55-bed Ridgecrest, a critical-access hospital located two hours east of Bakersfield.

“The example of a tertiary academic medical center helping a rural hospital improve its services and its service to the community always stayed in my mind,” Suver said. “When the opportunity to expand came here at Ridgecrest, and we were looking at demographics and services, the first thing we thought about is UC Davis—because there’s a track record of outreach that’s been very, very positive.”

Ridgecrest officials initially plan to leverage their network affiliation to recruit an outpatient oncologist and help prepare pharmacy and nursing staff. Ultimately, they hope to build out a cancer center and radiation oncology services as well.

“Even though we’re a rural facility, when we add services, if we don’t think we can do it right, we don’t want to do it,” Suver said. “But we feel the clinical excellence of the UC Davis program can help us achieve our goals.”

As a part of affiliation with UC Davis, cases from partnering cancer centers are discussed at joint videoconference meetings of UC Davis and community oncologists, pathologists, surgeons and other cancer experts. These “virtual tumor boards” allow physicians to share medical information, discuss treatments and explore additional resources, such as UC Davis clinical trials or referrals for additional specialty care.

To facilitate availability of the highly regulated clinical trials at remote network cancer centers, UC Davis provides administrative and regulatory expertise and quality oversight. Two-thirds of eligible patients at partnering sites currently enroll in trials, which can offer patients new drugs and treatment modalities before they become widely available — while helping UC Davis researchers to advance important discoveries.

“We believe that when we unite the strengths of an academic center and the strengths of a local community provider — and they are different — magic happens,” said Scott Christensen, M.D., the network’s longtime medical director and a UC Davis professor of hematology and oncology. “The contributions to improving oncology care can range from increasing our clinical trial therapy base — an opportunity to raise the bar in cancer medicine — to improving professional standards and leveraging important resources and services not otherwise available in small communities.”