A row of oncology healthcare providers with an empty space for a social worker.

The Underutilization of a Social Worker in an Oncology office

Last updated: October 2022

"Mental health refers to the cognitive, behavioral and emotional wellbeing of a person. It does NOT refer to a mental health diagnosis. A cancer diagnosis for an individual and their family can often disrupt the cognitive, behavioral and definitely emotional well-being. The fear of death, the change and/or loss of employment, vulnerability, the realization that your life is changed and then living your life after this life-altering and possible life-threatening diagnosis are all reasons why social work is and should be an integral part of the oncology team."
-Kristen Dunphe, LCSW

Adding a social worker to the standard of care

It baffles my mind that some oncology offices do not have their own social workers. I don’t mean “contracted” social workers or “on-call social workers.” I mean social workers that become part of a patient’s treatment plan. After diagnosis, it’s standard that you meet with your oncologist. You meet with your nurse practitioner and if warranted you have one-hour-long chemotherapy teach to prep you on what’s to come. You then meet your patient care coordinator and clinic nurse. Your last stop is with the infusion nurse.

A social workers' navigation through this illness

Let me remind you, you’ve been diagnosed with a life-threatening illness that you have either been told is curable OR is not curable. Anxiety and depression may set in. Sometimes we offer a social worker, but other times we see your support person as your personal social worker so we don’t even offer this which is more than an important resource.

In my opinion, a social worker shouldn’t be optional when diagnosed. It should be mandatory.

Value of an interdisciplinary team

Creating an interdisciplinary team warrants more than just an oncologist and nurse in an outpatient setting. In order to create sustainable and quality care, we need a team that can support medical AND mental health care. Imagine if after meeting your oncologist, nurse practitioner, clinic nurse, infusion nurse you were then able to sit down in a private space and meet with a social worker, who like the nurses and doctors are experts in their field.

The role of a social worker

As an interdisciplinary team, we wouldn’t have to make ongoing referrals to other offices and we would gain a better understanding of our patient’s personal hardships. Social workers could intervene in difficult situations that involve small children. They become the resource that is needed and the need for seeking help within the community wouldn’t be so urgent for the nurse to obtain. Most importantly for nurses and physicians, we wouldn’t be taking on the responsibility and role of a social worker.

Social stigma still exists

In my opinion, social stigma in mental health continues to create barriers. It seems as if a social worker is called in when there is a problem or situation that needs attention. I feel that if we strengthen our oncology teams we will then strengthen our patient’s quality of life during and after a cancer diagnosis.

Social workers are vital advocates for both the family and the patient. They are trained in supportive counseling, so why wouldn’t you make them a designated part of the oncology team?

What about you? Have you used a social worker as part of your healthcare team?

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