Social Work: Equal Partners in Caring

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By: Lakshmi Naik and Stephen Collazo, Department of Social Work

What comes to mind when you hear the words social worker?

Some people associate the profession with the "Good Samaritan" who advocates for the downtrodden and needy. Others might think of things like "social welfare" for the poor. Many associate social work with "protection" for the abused.

Early pioneers
While all of these are true, it's also important to note that social workers were among the earliest pioneers in providing the first psychosocial services to patients with cancer, addressing their "emotional pain" and integrating psychological, socio-economic and existential dimensions of adapting to and coping with a cancer diagnosis.

When a patient is diagnosed with cancer, it has both psychological and existential implications. Faced with the prospect of a life-threatening disease, patients and families embark upon an unpredictable roller coaster journey that takes its toll on them physically, emotionally, financially and spiritually.

Over the past 25 years the psychosocial dimensions of patient care in oncology settings have gained immense momentum, bringing together multiple disciplines: medicine, nursing, social work, psychiatry, chaplaincy, pharmacology, rehabilitation and palliative care. These multidisciplinary teams become equal partners in caring for the whole patient.

In fact, a 2007 Institute of Medicine report titled "Cancer Care for the Whole Patient: Meeting Psychosocial Health Needs" proposed new evidence-based models and standards for addressing these various patient needs and recommendations for the coordination of care between the aforementioned variety of service providers.

Helping patients navigate
Social workers hold a unique position in this multidisciplinary team. Because they understand the psychosocial impact of cancer and its treatments, they have the ability to help the patient navigate in a carefully and strategically planned manner throughout the cancer experience. This guidance helps patients manage distress, comply with treatments, enhance recovery, obtain support and regain control. 

Social Work counselors initially assess patients to determine if any help with coping is needed and then prepare patients and families for any possible changes in mood, behavior, relationships and lifestyle. The primary techniques for addressing these potential patient issues are a variety of counseling techniques (problem solving, brief psychotherapy, cognitive-behavioral and other supportive interventions), as well as services like relaxation, meditation, guided imagery, hypnosis and support groups.

The psychosocial impact of cancer on patients, families, health care professionals and society at large is so immense that a multi-pronged, multidisciplinary approach that is well orchestrated and streamlined throughout the course of the cancer experience is imperative.

Social workers will continue to provide a very integral form of care within this approach, both at MD Anderson and in the oncology field as a whole. If any of the services mentioned are of interest to you, feel free to contact the Department of Social Work at 713-792-6195.

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