Social Workers Helped Leukemia Patients Navigate Care during COVID Pandemic
Social workers play an important role in a leukemia patient’s care. As an integral part of a patient’s total care team, they look beyond a patient’s pathology and focus on the whole person to ensure they are cared for holistically and their psychosocial needs are met.
“Here at Advent Health, oncology social workers examine the mind, body and spirit,” said Paula Brumback, MSW, LCSW, head of the Association of Oncology Social Workers Blood Cancer and Bone Marrow Transplant Special Interest Group, and Licensed Clinical Social Worker at Advent Health. “In addition to making sure that patients receive the proper clinical care, we can help them cope with their leukemia diagnosis and treatment and connect them with resources they and their loved ones need.”
“Social workers are a rich resource of education and connections to services in the health care system,” added Samantha Bordeau, Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Advent Health and also a member of AOSW. “We can help patients access home health care, employer and government assistance, disability and FMLA benefits, and more. Often, we open patients’ eyes to opportunities they may not be familiar with.”
Caring for Emotional Health
Bordeau noted that oncology social workers also help leukemia patients access psychosocial and emotional support, through individual counseling, community and online support groups and sometimes through a referral to a psychiatrist.
Shortly after diagnosis a social worker meets with each patient and explains the role of social work role. The social worker also administers a distress screening tool to measure a patient’s emotional health and then offers emotional and educational services throughout the patient’ss continuum of care.
“The leukemia treatment process can be incredibly intensive from an emotional perspective on both patients and their family caregivers, especially because both the patient and their primary caregiver must take time off from work and activities, which can throw their sense of self off balance,” Brumback said.
Caring for Financial Health
Oncology social workers also can help patients access financial assistance resources to help cover expensive treatments as well as travel and lodging costs associated with treatments. Financial assistance was particularly important during the early days of the COVID pandemic, when patients and family caregivers alike faced furloughs and layoffs and stimulus checks had yet to be issued.
The HealthWell Foundation, sponsor of Real World Health Care provides financial assistance through its program. HealthWell offers two funds to help leukemia patients afford the costs of treatments. Their Acute Myeloid Leukemia fund provides up to $10,000 a year to help patients afford the prescription drugs and biologics used in treatment as well as provide assistance with insurance premiums. Their Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia fund provides up to $8,000 a year for the same type of copay and premium assistance.
Caring during COVID
Brumback and her colleagues faced special challenges helping their leukemia patients navigate care – and life in general – during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. One challenge was the longer isolation periods patients were forced into.
“Typically, once a patient’s blood counts recover after treatment, they are given the green light to go out and about – see family, go shopping and do many of the things they used to do,” she said. “But with the risks associated with COVID, instead of a 100-day waiting period, they had an indefinite waiting period. In response, we established weekly online support groups to help patients and their loved ones cope with the related stress and depression of long-term isolation.”
Brumback’s and Bordeau’s colleague, Geena Festa, Licensed Clinical Social Worker and AOSW member said she and her team at Advent Health also needed to pivot during the early days of the pandemic to help people find pre- and post-transplant lodging and transportation at a time when medical transport systems and local hotels were shut down. She found options in ride-sharing and home-sharing resources and worked with patients’ insurance providers and charitable assistance programs to get those services covered.
“By our nature and our training, social workers adapt quickly to current events,” she said. “We know how events and trends affect the care of our patients, and we’re incredibly creative when it comes to investigating any and all options to advocate on behalf of our patients and get them what they need.”
While in-person leukemia treatments couldn’t be paused during the height of the COVID pandemic, some support services, like those provided by social workers, had to be conducted virtually. Festa said that before the pandemic, telehealth had started to become a general health care trend, but not among social workers.
“When COVID first hit, many social workers were sent home and had to quickly learn to set up virtual care and support through the phone or Zoom,” she said. “It was initially difficult to provide care when we couldn’t meet with our patients face-to-face. But now, I think telehealth is here to stay for the social worker profession.”
As one of the leading organizations of oncology social workers, AOSW supported its members as they transitioned to providing virtual care by communicating with federal agencies in support of initiatives such as reimbursement for services delivered via telehealth.
“Our members experienced disruptions in how their work was performed, where their work was performed and the type of work they performed,” said Michael L. Grignon, LMSW, CCM, MBA, Secretary-Treasurer of AOSW. “We anticipate that these changes will persist, and to a greater degree post-COVID than before. How such changes affect both oncology social workers and patients will need to continue to be explored and supported. We believe we are emerging stronger and even better positioned to support our members and the greater cancer community as a whole.”