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Social Work Month: A Focus on Patient Distress

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By Lakshmi Naik, L.C.S.W., and Stephen Collazo, L.M.S.W.

March is National Social Work Month. Here at MD Anderson, one of the primary roles of the Department of Social Work is to promote optimum quality of life and remove any psychological or social barriers that might have a negative impact on a patient's care.

One particular barrier that can be present for patients of all different diagnoses and backgrounds is emotional or psychological distress.Sadness, anxiety and fear can be a common experience for many patients with cancer. In fact, these psychological and emotional feelings of distress have become of increasing interest in the oncology field.

The 2007 Institute of Medicine Report, "Cancer Care for the Whole Patient: Meeting Psychosocial Health Needs," has proposed new standards for assessing patients' distress because addressing distress has been linked to better treatment outcomes. Distress, like pain, can fluctuate, and like pain, distress can increase due to a variety of triggers.

An understanding of a patient's distress is important because when patients are completely overcome by a sense of fear and anxiety -- to a point at which they are almost too paralyzed to think or even feel -- their response to medical intervention can become futile and often cause greater suffering than the disease itself.

The landmark initiative on distress led by the National Comprehensive Cancer Centers had a rippling effect in offsetting a new model for screening cancer patients. Studies have shown that on average, 30% to 40% of patients with cancer suffer from significant levels of distress and psychological problems dealing with depression, anxiety and post- traumatic stress disorder. In addition, 11% of patients report limitations in performing daily activities and 58% report other functional disabilities.

Helping patients cope with their distress is a daily service each Social Work counselor at MD Anderson offers for patients. Through a variety of free counseling techniques along with additional services such as relaxation, meditation, guided imagery, hypnosis, and support groups, social workers can help patients reduce their distress, thus improving overall medical outcomes for patients.

For more information on managing distress or about any of the services discussed, please contact the Department of Social Work at 713-792-6195.

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