ASTCT Social Work SIG Hopes to Bring Important Resources to Hem/Onc Social Workers around the Country

When Nancy Boyle, MSW, LCSW, began her career in social work over 30 years ago, she felt a sense of pride.

Working in the BMT unit at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, she met cancer patients who were undergoing treatments that, at the time, were somewhat experimental. Working through extremely difficult situations with them made her feel like she was really making a difference. And being around the rest of the BMT care team—the nurses, the pharmacists, the physicians—she could feel the excitement they felt about the field moving forward.

“They were so intentional about how they cared for these patients,” Boyle said. “I just continue to be grateful and amazed at this area of care for patients. There’s been so much growth and promise, and you know what, I think ‘I started here.’”

Boyle is one of the co-chairs of ASTCT’s Social Work SIG. Formed in 2019, the SIG’s main goal is to establish guidelines for social workers in cellular therapy and transplantation and create resources for those in the field to use. SIG members also hope to raise awareness about the important role social workers play in hem/onc care.

While the group is still in its beginning stages, Boyle said she was excited to see the progress made so far this year—especially in light of COVID-19 and understanding how mental health affects us all.

“It’s crucial that social work is there,” Boyle said. “There is the psychosocial piece of what affects patients. So being able to talk about that and in an evidence based way—the Social Work SIG really hits a sweet spot that we haven’t been able to step into before.”

Katie Schoeppner, MSW, LICSW, is another co-chair of the Social Work SIG. A focus over the past several months has been identifying how the SIG can help social workers raise their visibility within their own hospital systems. Developing resources like role descriptions, best practices and standards gives social workers a jumping off point when talking to their employers.

Unlike some other areas of the cellular transplantation theme, social workers are in a unique position. Usually a social work department within a hospital system oversees them. While they are specialized, their supervisors don’t always know the resources they need to be successful.

 “A supervisor may have very little idea of the clinical work on a day-to-day basis,” Schoeppner said. “And sometimes they underestimate what that means. We want a role description a social worker can take to their manager and said, ‘this is what I do,’ and use it to justify additional resources if that’s required to support the BMT program.”

 They’re also working on becoming more integrated into ASTCT. Boyle said the initiatives of the Social Work SIG dovetail into other areas of the society. From palliative care to diversity and inclusion, social workers have experiences that create rich and valuable connections that impact several areas of care. Having a seat at the table allows social workers to share their experiences with people across several disciplines, and gives insights on how to best approach a patient’s treatment.

“It’s social work 101,” Boyle said. “Getting someone else to look at what you’re working on and sharing ideas on things—that is part and parcel of our practice. You get 15 social workers in a room and you’re going to get a lot of, ‘you know, what about this?’”

The pandemic underscores the importance of the collective conversations more than ever before. Social workers focus a lot on the mental health of patients going through taxing treatments. As COVID-19 has overwhelmed hospital systems, it’s made everyone take a step back and evaluate the role their mental health plays. In some ways, its forced many to have difficult conversations in the work place about how they are feeling.

“We’re just having different conversations in the workplace that we haven’t had before,” Schoeppner said. “We’re getting more comfortable talking about mental health and emotional health, and as we get more comfortable with that in our own lives, it will also start bringing it to the forefront for our patients more than we ever have.”

As the SIG continues to build resources and make its mark among other SIGs and society members, Boyle said her biggest goal is to develop tools to build stronger social work programs across the country. She said the SIG is already looking to host their own session at the TCT Meetings of CIBMTR and ASTCT in 2021, and are recruiting new members.

“I think this is the perfect place to make some inroads that will help create awareness and create value,” she said. “We know we’re valuable, but we want to document it, to see it. We want to validate it. This is a huge value to not only our profession, but I also hope it is to our teams and patients at well.”