Real World Health Care Blog

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


Psychosocial Care for Children with Cancer

This week, Real World Health Care brings you an interview with Lori Wiener, PhD, DCSW, LCSW-C, Co-Director, Behavioral Health Core and Director, Psychosocial Support and Research Program, Pediatric Oncology Branch, Center for Cancer Research, National Cancer Institute. We asked Dr. Wiener to talk about psychosocial problems facing children with cancer … (read full article)

Caregiver Conundrum: Supporting the Psychosocial Needs of the Cancer Support System

This week, Real World Health Care is delighted to highlight the American Psychosocial Oncology Society (APOS). We spoke with APOS President-Elect Vicki Kennedy, LCSW, executive director of Oncology Strategy & Patient Engagement at Cullari Communications Global. Ms. Kennedy shared insights on how APOS is addressing the psychosocial needs of cancer … (read full article)

Identification, Intervention and Integration: Why Earlier Is Better

This week, Real World Health Care brings you an interview with Paul Gionfriddo, president and CEO of Mental Health America (MHA), the nation’s oldest mental health advocacy organization. MHA promotes mental health as a critical part of overall wellness, including prevention services for all; early identification and intervention for those … (read full article)

Cancer Affects More Than the Body

As the largest professionally led nonprofit network of cancer support worldwide, the Cancer Support Community (CSC), including its Gilda’s Club affiliates, is dedicated to ensuring that all people impacted by cancer are empowered by knowledge, strengthened by action, and sustained by community. CSC achieves its mission through three areas: direct … (read full article)

How to Get Over It: Fear of Vomiting

This week, Real World Health Care provides information on the fear of vomit by sharing an article originally published by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. We encourage you to visit the ADAA blog to read or take part in the lively commentary discussion that follows the original post … (read full article)

Can Psychosocial Care Increase the Value of Cancer Care?

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 … (read full article)

Behavioral Health: A Costly and Often Untreated Aspect of Chronic Illness

Mental health is the costliest medical condition in the nation, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). It devastates individuals, families and communities. For many, behavioral health problems do not exist in a vacuum; they are inextricably linked with serious medical illnesses such as heart disease, stroke, cancer … (read full article)

Multiple Sclerosis: Overcoming Pain

In March, Real World Health Care will launch a new series focusing on the behavioral health impacts of chronic illnesses. Until then, we will revisit a few of our recent blog posts that touch briefly on related behavioral health issues. This week, we revisit our interview with Dawn Ehde, PhD, Department of … (read full article)

Pain Management for Cancer Survivors

In March, Real World Health Care will launch a new series focusing on the behavioral health impacts of chronic illnesses. Until then, we will revisit a few of our recent blog posts that touch briefly on related behavioral health issues. This week, we revisit our interview with Judith A. Paice, PhD, … (read full article)