Providing Social Support to Patients with Cancer

Interview with Vicki Kennedy, LCSW, Vice President of Program Development and Delivery Cancer Support Community, Washington, DC.

The following interview was conducted recently with Vicki Kennedy, LCSW, at the 2014 conference of the Association for Value-Based Cancer Care.

Q: What do you feel is the most pressing need among patients with cancer and their caregivers?

Ms Kennedy: Today, when we think about cancer and its effect on the whole person’s life, it really is…having the cancer healthcare team understand all of the dimensions of the person’s life, the different domains that affect their ability to participate in their treatment: their emotional health and wellbeing, their social experiences and their relationships in their life, their finances. All of those aspects are really so important to their ability to get good quality care. It is an important part of the treatment equation today to include psychosocial care as a part of the treatment itself.

Q: Is the oncology community providing adequate psychosocial support for the oncology population?

Ms Kennedy: It is difficult to determine “What is adequate social care?” Adequate varies person to person. Some people have greater needs. Almost 40% of people with cancer experience significant enough distress to impact their ability to participate well in their treatment. It is hard to say what is adequate anymore. What is important is to be able to…help patients identify what their problems and concerns are, and find them the information and resources that they need in order to quickly help them address those needs and concerns.

Q: What can practice managers and clinical care managers do to ensure that patients and caregivers have access to the support they need?

Ms Kennedy: Practice managers can play a vital role in really identifying resources in the community that they can provide to patients and families who are coming into the practices. Clinical managers can play an important role in helping to identify what those needs are. We have to ask the patients first what they are concerned about and do that in a consistent way.
Then the practice managers, as long as they are well informed about what is available in the community, can provide that information [to patients] in written information, booklets, brochures—ways that can help patients find resources.

Q: What can be done to increase the awareness of social support services within the cancer community?

Ms Kennedy: There is, by and large, a lack of awareness that there are support services, and that psychosocial issues are an important part of cancer treatment. There are many, many groups, institutions, and organizations that are working hard to bring awareness to the importance of psychosocial care. It is no longer just a nice thing to do to tell people about support services and get them to the services that they need. It is actually a critical part of quality care to get the best health outcomes.

Q: Are there barriers that prevent patients and caregivers from receiving social support, and, if so, what can be done to overcome these barriers?

Ms Kennedy: Sadly, there are barriers for patients and families to reach services that can be vitally important to their health and well- being during the cancer experience. Often, those barriers are kind of surprising. I think there is still a stigma for people around cancer. There is often a stigma, particularly in American society, about asking for help or receiving help in the community. There is also fear and anxiety about the normal kind of reaction in the cancer experience with the thought that “Oh, I have to be tough,” or “I really do not need the help and support that is out there.” Perhaps, also an important barrier is that the healthcare team really does not recognize the importance of identifying these needs and linking the patients up with the services that could be most helpful.

Q: What insider tips would you share with other members of the cancer patient’s healthcare team to facilitate access to care?

Ms Kennedy: There are a lot of things. As an oncology social worker, I have learned over the years many ways that we can better engage patients and families…in the conversation about their care. What is it that they need along that cancer journey? More and more we are learning from patients about the cancer experience and what they need. They need help with coping with the cost of care. They need help understanding the complex treatment options that have been provided for them. They may need help managing family, work, or home life—different aspects of coping with their cancer. The best tip I can give to practices is to locate resources, either locally or nationally, that are available to your patients and to the caregivers who are in your practices. Think about how you can better ask the patients in a systematic way about what they need, and then link them up with those important resources. Do not wait for patients to be in crisis to get them to those services that can be most helpful.

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