By Real World Health Care Editorial Staff  |  Jun 18, 2018

Oncology Social Workers Play Important Role in Cancer Care

Real World Health Care is delighted to shine a spotlight on the Association of Oncology Social Workers (AOSW) and its Patient Centered Research Collaborative for Psychosocial Oncology (PCRC). We spoke with the PCRC’s Project Lead, Bradley Zebrack, PhD, MSW, MPH, FAPOS. Dr. Zebrack is Professor at the University of Michigan School of Social Work and also with a member of the Health Behaviors and Outcomes Research Program at University of Michigan Rogel Cancer Center.

Engaged Community

Real World Health Care: What are the goals of the PCRC?

Dr. Bradley Zebrack, University of Michigan School of Social Work

Bradley Zebrack: Our purpose is to establish an engaged community of oncology social workers, patient advocates, academic researchers and key stakeholders in research of relevance to patients and families. Our vision is to assure that cancer patients and their families access and receive care that is safe, efficient, effective, timely, patient-centered and equitable.

RWHC: How will PCRC achieve those goals?

BZ: Our intention is to create an innovative, productive and sustainable research network that fosters collaboration among experienced researchers, skilled psychosocial care providers, and informed patient advocates.

We’re working to enhance our ability to conduct research and use research findings to influence cancer care. One way we’re doing this is by conducting a series of face-to-face meetings and monthly teleconferences that engage and utilize our collective knowledge, talents and experiences.

Research Priorities

RWHC: What sort of research is PCRC focused on?

BZ: We spent much of our first year generating and prioritizing patient-centered research by identifying highly relevant topics and issues intended to ensure and enhance the quality of cancer care. A survey of our membership uncovered a number of priorities, including understanding the patient experience; palliative care, end-of-life care, and advanced care planning; distress screening; patient uptake of psychosocial support services; and mental health disorders and well-being.

Primary Providers of Psychosocial Care

RWHC: How are oncology social workers uniquely positioned to help address the psychosocial care of cancer patients and their families?

BZ: Social workers provide 60-70 percent of all mental health services in the United States, and oncology social workers are the primary providers of psychosocial care for cancer patients. Many are trained and well-positioned to influence cancer care delivery by participating in their institution’s cancer committee, where clinical care policies are deliberated, or by contributing to the generation, dissemination and implementation of evidence to inform patient-centered care.

RWHC: What challenges is the profession facing?

BZ: There are misconceptions about the role of social workers in health care settings. For example, some assume that social work is not an evidence-based practice. Another challenge is the lack of insurance reimbursement for social work services. There’s also a social stigma about using mental health services, despite evidence supporting its efficacy and benefit for patients and families.

Integrating Supportive Care Services

RWHC: How can patients and their families best make use of oncology social workers? What role should clinicians play in integrating the services social workers provide?

BZ: Cancer care systems need to do a better job integrating evidence-based supportive care services so they are available to patients. This is best done through collaborative care models in oncology, in which social workers are part of a multi-disciplinary team focused on identifying and responding to patients’ needs and supporting their adherence to standard protocols.

The positive effects of psychosocial care for cancer patients and their families are well documented in terms of enhanced patient outcomes, medical cost offsets, and even survival. Despite the evidence demonstrating the effectiveness of psychosocial interventions for cancer patients, shortcomings and disparities exist in the delivery, targeting and tailoring of psychosocial support services to those that need them.

A Message from Our Sponsor

As the founding sponsor of Real World Health Care, the HealthWell Foundation is committed to helping patients get the medical treatments they need, regardless of their ability to pay. We’ve seen first-hand how financial distress can impact the health and lives of individuals and families. Cancer patients with behavioral health conditions are particularly hard hit; according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), patients with some forms of cancer incur $8,000 more per year in health care costs than cancer patients without behavioral health conditions.

In keeping with our mission, we are pleased to announce the introduction of a new Cancer-Related Behavioral Health Fund, specifically for treatment-related behavioral health issues in cancer. The Fund provides financial assistance to individuals with a diagnosis of cancer to help with cost-shares (deductibles, coinsurances and copayments) for covered services rendered by behavioral health providers (psychiatrists, psychologists, clinical counselors, and licensed social workers).

We invite readers of Real World Health Care to learn more about this new Fund and how you can support it by visiting


Categories: Behavioral Health, General
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