In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, many health care leaders predict that declining mental health may be the next major crisis to impact the world.
Though mental health is a growing problem for the population overall, the prevalence of mental health distress among cancer patients is particularly worrying. Studies have shown that mental health disorders like anxiety and depression affect an average of 30–35% patients with cancer. According to Cancer Treatment Centers of America, signs of mental health issues among cancer patients include depression, lack of interest in daily activities, difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much, overwhelming anxiety, drug misuse and/or heavy alcohol use. Cancer symptoms and cancer treatments can cause some of these mental health issues, or make them worse.
However, early diagnosis and treatment of mental health conditions has been shown to increase survival rates among patients with cancer. The National Foundation for Cancer Research notes that “the stressors triggered by cancer are certainly in no short supply…[but] mounting anxiety or depression should not be ignored. Having cancer does not require patients to forfeit living their best life even while battling the disease.”
To better understand how oncologists are helping their patients manage mental health concerns, Cardinal Health surveyed more than 240 oncologists about how they address the topic of mental health with patients. The findings, published in December 2021 issue of Oncology Insights, demonstrate that though oncologists recognize that addressing mental health is important, many aren’t taking steps to connect patient with the appropriate resources.
The study affirmed that mental health concerns are pervasive among cancer patients, with 81% of surveyed oncologists saying they frequently or very frequently see patients who are coping with some form of mental health distress, with anxiety and depression being the most common types.
Yet despite the fact that more than 90% of oncologists agreed that the mental health of oncology patients has a significant impact on outcomes, only 61% frequently discuss mental health with their patients who have cancer, and only a third frequently refer patients for mental health services or treatment.
“Our health care system is complex and fragmented,” said Dr. Bruce Feinberg, Chief Medical Officer of Cardinal Health Specialty Solutions. “A patient with cancer may be seeing three or four different providers, including medical-, surgical- and radiation-oncologists as well as other specialists. Referring such a patient to add a mental health specialist to the care matrix may be viewed by the patient as more burden than benefit. The complexity of the system can be a barrier to treatment.”
Feinberg said he was encouraged by the survey results showing that nearly half of oncologists have social workers at their practice who can help support the mental health needs of cancer patients, and one-fourth of respondents have a clinical psychologist on staff. Yet only a third of the surveyed physicians feel they have adequate resources to support patients with their mental health needs.
In addition to needing more mental health resources, Feinberg said there needs to be more discussion between physicians and patients about mental health – and noted that patients and caregivers should initiate the conversation if physicians do not.
“Self-advocacy is critical,” he said. “Patients who are struggling with mental health challenges, or their caregivers, need to speak up and ask for the support they need if they are not being offered it.”
Note: The findings in Oncology Insights are based on web-based surveys conducted in late 2021. More than 240 oncologists from both community- and hospital-based practices participated in the research. (The report also includes viewpoints of medical experts with Cardinal Health Specialty Solutions.) You can download a free copy of the latest edition of the report here.