A growing movement in health care is going beyond the prescription pad to tackle the complex, whole-life needs of patients with cancer.
Besides prescribing medications and performing surgery, health professionals should also listen. Listen to patients’ worries. Listen to their spiritual needs. And listen to the practical problems that keep them from following their treatment plans.
That’s according to the Institute of Medicine (IOM) of the National Academies, a prestigious group of experts who advise the nation on medical issues. The IOM recently proposed a new standard of care to make sure that cancer patients get more of the important support services they need.
At City of Hope, the Sheri & Les Biller Patient and Family Resource Center is one of the country’s first programs to put that level of care into practice.
“The Biller Resource Center is about understanding what patients and their families and caregivers go through, listening to them and helping them solve problems, so they can fully focus on fighting cancer and living a healthy life,” said Matt Loscalzo, M.S.W., the center’s administrative director.
The Biller Resource Center brings together a caring cast of professionals from across City of Hope: social workers, nutritionists, psychologists, pain and palliative care physicians, chaplains, psychiatrists and patient educators, to name a few. It aims to knock down barriers among services to create a seamless care experience.
“You just don’t see this kind of effort in most cancer centers yet,” Loscalzo said. “We want to be the model.”
More than drugs
Over the last two decades, medicine has made stunning gains on cancer. The five-year survival rate for the 15 most common cancers has grown from 43 to 64 percent for men and from 57 to 64 percent for women. Support for patients’ and caregivers’ emotional and social needs hasn’t kept pace.
Patients’ problems and challenges in their personal life can compromise their quality of life — regardless of the success of their medical treatment.
The IOM suggests that doctors and other providers improve services by first identifying what patients need, and then linking the patients and their families to services that meet those needs.
For example, a mom with breast cancer might need childcare so she can undergo treatment while her children are supervised. She might also need counseling to learn how to talk to the kids about cancer. But without expert guidance, she might never hear about resources that can help.
Taking the extra step
Providers should help patients manage their illness — responding to their complaints about nausea and pain, for example — and coordinate visits with professionals such as psychiatrists and physical therapists, the IOM said. Finally, health-care professionals should follow up on the effectiveness of these services to ensure they work well.
That’s already happening at City of Hope. Through a Biller Resource Center pilot program, staff members are screening patients one-on-one in certain oncology clinics to learn about their needs and concerns and how they can benefit from City of Hope programs. Patients may want information about transportation or might need help from a social worker, for example.
A patient navigator also meets with new patients and serves as a guide throughout treatment to make sure that patients don’t get lost in the system.
“It’s exciting to witness the extent of the positive impact that the Biller Resource Center is bringing to patients and their families, said Natalie Schnaitmann, director of operations at the Biller Resource Center. “And we know that we are just beginning.”
A patient-friendly brief on the findings is available on the IOM Web site.