This week, Real World Health Care interviews Suzanne M. Miller, PhD, Professor of Cancer Prevention and Control and Director of Patient Empowerment and Health Decision Making at Fox Chase Cancer Center (FCCC). Dr. Miller is on the Board of Directors of the HealthWell Foundation and the Society of Behavioral Medicine (SBM), and serves as Chair of the Board of Directors of the New Jersey Health Care Quality Institute. She also serves as Editor-in-Chief for SBM’s flagship journal Translational Behavioral Medicine: Practice, Policy and Research.
At FCCC, Dr. Miller’s work focuses on developing, evaluating and implementing psychosocial interventions that can be readily integrated in ongoing cancer care to improve outcomes for patients and their families, especially those outcomes related to patient-centered experiences of their cancer diagnosis. FCCC’s goal is to integrate understanding of the psychological response and negative psychological consequences of a cancer diagnosis with a broader medical management of the patient, and thereby achieve optimal patient-reported outcomes.
We discussed the work of SBM and explored the link between cancer and behavioral health. We also talked about behavioral health screening and the importance of integrated care.
Advocating for Psychosocial Care
Real World Health Care: How does the Society for Behavioral Medicine address the issue of psychosocial care for cancer patients?
Suzanne Miller: SBM advocates for NIH research funding so members and others working in cancer have the dollars they need to discover and scale new behavioral treatments and care approaches. SBM also shares the latest cancer care research with members through our journals and annual scientific conference. This gives them the best information for planning new studies and for helping patients in their clinics.
Our flagship journal, Translational Behavioral Medicine, publishes studies showing how successful behavioral treatments can move from the lab to the clinic where they can help real patients. The journal’s February 2018 issue highlights the use of genomic information in cancer care and in screening cancer patients’ family members.
Other papers published in 2017 feature best practices for encouraging more colon cancer screening and for helping breast cancer patients cope with diagnosis and survival. This recent research by Allicock, et.al. (2017) investigated the drivers of successful implementation of a peer-support program in rural cancer patient populations. It identified possible barriers to the effectiveness of similar community-engaged programs in improving survivorship outcomes.
Several SBM members are at the forefront of successfully training providers to deliver existing empirically supported interventions to patients as well as shifting interventions to user-driven, mobile-friendly, web-based platforms to widen reach in treating anxiety and depressive disorders in cancer patients.
Link Between Cancer and Behavioral Health
RWHC: What are some of the most common behavioral health problems associated with having cancer?
SM: A cancer diagnosis brings a wealth of psychological challenges. In fact, adults living with cancer have a six-time higher risk for psychological disability than those not living with cancer. Patients and families have to deal with not only the physical stress to their lives and potential livelihoods, but also with family dynamics and changes in their sense of self and future.
Cancer patients also must make numerous decisions while they are in an extremely emotional state. They must decide what treatments to pursue, both initially and over the long term, how to cope with treatment side effects, how to deal with disability and maintain an independent identity, and how to maintain quality of life.
Depression and anxiety are common diagnoses associated with these challenges, yet, despite all of this, social or emotional support is offered in less than half of cancer patients’ care. If cancer patients have certain behavioral health conditions and they are not treated for them, it can negatively impact health outcomes by affecting their ability to make sound medical decisions, by decreasing the chances of them seeking and adhering to treatment, and by affecting their immune systems and ability to fight off cancer. Behavioral health issues can also contribute to harmful health behaviors such as smoking. Adults with depression are more likely to smoke heavily and less likely to quit smoking. Smoking is not only linked to cancer incidence but is also associated with a higher burden of side effects reported by cancer patients during treatment and in survivorship.
RWHC: Can behavioral health problems exacerbate physical or biological problems in cancer patients?
SM: Yes, in a number of ways. They interfere with rational decision-making about one’s treatment and one’s life choices. They also undermine adherence to needed regimes, especially over time. For example, after a breast cancer diagnosis, most patients undergo recommended surgery. However, following surgery, many patients are advised to go on hormonal regimes that can be toxic and difficult to endure. Depression and anxiety can undermine adherence to those regimens.
At a physiological level, healing can be delayed or impaired, making patients less likely to reenter society and more likely to experience relapse and recurrences. For example, cellular and molecular processes can be negatively influenced by untreated behavioral disorders in cancer patients, which can lead to the cancer’s progression. Importantly, this connection can also work conversely, meaning psychological treatment has been found to improve underlying biological status. A compelling example of this was shown by Thornton, et.al., (2009) who used a psychological intervention to alleviate symptoms of depression among cancer patients and reduce the presence of inflammatory markers found in the body. This is important because inflammatory markers are an indicator of the stress that is being placed on a person’s immune system. Since mental health issues are also associated with smoking and other unhealthy behaviors, behavioral health problems appear to contribute to worse health outcomes for cancer patients and survivors.
Attention and Support
RWHC: Do you think behavioral health impacts of having cancer get enough attention from the provider community?
SM: The provider community is well aware of and sympathetic to the kinds of challenges patients face. However, they often lack the time and expertise needed to sufficiently screen for depression and anxiety and related psychological issues. This serves as a barrier for provider compliance with recommendations that patients with behavioral health problems receive evidence-based psychological treatment. Further, there is a lack of available costs and infrastructure to pay for appropriate psychosocial interventions. All of this amounts to only 14% of cancer patients receiving behavioral health counseling. Therefore, we are faced with behavioral health issues like depression, which is common in cancer patients and is known to negatively influence cancer outcomes, which are not being addressed sufficiently in the current standard of care.
RWHC: Are there any stigmas attached to this from the patient’s perspective?
SM: Cancer has been the big “C” from the time people became aware of it. More than any other disease, patients fear it and suffer tremendous concerns about the social impact for them and their families when people learn that they have a cancer diagnosis. Further, cancer doesn’t go away. Survivorship and late effects last well after the initial diagnosis, even for early stage cancers. In fact, for a third of cancer patients, distress persists more than a year after their cancer diagnosis and comes in the forms of worrying about the future, feeling lonely or isolated, and financial concerns—to name a few. In addition, there is a very real insurance threat to the individual from having a so-called “pre-existing” condition such as cancer.
RWHC: Who are the best people to advocate for a cancer patient’s behavioral health? What happens when a patient doesn’t have a strong support network?
SM: I believe a well-coordinated health care team, combined with patient and community resources, is the best way to advocate for behavioral health. Each one brings a particular expertise that can speak not only to the public, but also to policy makers. At the patient level, patients need strong support from their families, peers, work, and their health care providers. Among the health care team, mental health providers are especially well-equipped to advocate for patients’ behavioral health needs. At the broader level, the system must consider psychosocial intervention as integral to patient care as a medical intervention. In fact, the two are synergistic, and we must be bold in the serving of the relevance of behavioral health in the overall health of patients diagnosed with cancer.
Behavioral Health Screening
RWHC: What sort of challenges need to be overcome to make a case for the value of psychosocial care for cancer patients?
SM: It is extremely important to show the viability of screening for cancer distress in a cost-effective manner, especially when using information technology (IT) that can help relieve the burden on the health care system. That is exactly why the National Cancer Institute is looking to fund projects that use IT to support the systematic screening and treatment of depression in cancer patients. In addition, it’s very important to show the value of psychosocial care in terms of its impact not only on psychosocial outcomes like depression and anxiety, but also on improving adherence, reducing readmission rates, improving survival rates, and reducing recurrence rates.
Value is defined as health outcomes achieved per dollar spent, so if psychosocial care can improve adherence and survival rates while also decreasing readmission and recurrence, then it can certainly be argued that psychosocial care will increase the value of health care provided.
The Whole Patient
RWHC: How can improving the integration of care and caring for the “whole patient” help to improve behavioral health among cancer patients?
SM: Cancer patients face reality-based anxiety and depression, stigma, changes in self and family identity, and a more frightening and uncertain world. When the health care system limits care to medical interventions, it not only makes the impact of those interventions less effective, but it also fails to recognize the impact of psychosocial influences on cancer prognosis and survivorship.
While some patients may find their way in psychological or social support interventions, if these interventions are not well-integrated within the context of the medical care model, they limit their impact and their validation. This means that patients will be much less likely to have access to, and to uptake, critical psychological resources that can not only improve quality of life, but the quantity of life as well. An integration of care ensures that patients get access to these resources and that no patients are lost to follow-up when it comes to behavioral health care. It provides the patient with a team of support that tackles the physical, social, and emotional challenges that come with a cancer diagnosis.
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 will provide 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).