Amy Colver, LCSW
Melody Griffith, MSW, LMSW, OSW-C
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COVID’s Effects on the Oncology Social Work Profession
By Bill McDermott, MSW, LCSW
As I reflect on how COVID has impacted oncology social workers this past year, it is quite daunting to think about what we have experienced. But my greatest takeaway has been that we are needed now more than ever.
I first would like to reflect on how we were able to pivot and adapt over the past 18 months as a profession. Our colleague and AOSW past president, Sara Goldberger, used the expression “crisis breeds innovation” last year, and I could not agree more. I saw how effectively the group of social workers at our cancer center made the adjustment to working from home and actually improved the services that they provided to their patients. We learned how much more willing our patients were to join groups as attendance skyrocketed. We were never sure if it was because (a) it was so much easier for patients to join the groups from their living rooms, (b) patients were so desirous of any form of social contact that they were willing to join virtual groups, or (c) a combination of both. At any rate, the groups have continued virtually, and it is something we would never have considered were it not for the pandemic. So we live and learn.
I also noticed far more discussion at our cancer center (not just among the social workers) on the importance of addressing the social determinants of health, as well as the racial disparities in health care that COVID made so clear. There has been a tremendous amount of energy around these topics this past year, and no profession is more suited to tackling these issues than social work.
AOSW as an organization was also able to pivot and adjust during the pandemic. Last year we were not really sure until the middle of spring whether we would be able to hold the 2020 conference in person and finally decided not to do so. The organization was able to rapidly convert it into a virtual conference, and it ended up being a great success.
I would also like to touch on how the last 18 months have affected both our current and future patient populations. Because so many people were not able to undergo cancer screenings this past year, there are many cancers that will be detected at a later stage, which will of course impact survival rates in many of our populations. This will make our work more complicated. It is unclear at this time when we will reach pre-COVID screening levels.
The worsening mental health and grief crisis sparked by COVID has shown that our services are needed more than ever. At the same time, we need to attend to our own grief and leave plenty of room for our own self care if we are going to thrive as a profession.
One other aspect that the pandemic made clear was the overwhelming need for advance care planning. Patients showing up in emergency rooms in the final days of their lives without the benefit of advance care planning conversations has been a problem for as long as I can remember. COVID only amplified this. Now is a good time to address this problem with input from social workers, on whose shoulders this responsibility often lies.
As I think of how we were taught in Social Work practice theory that in a crisis there is opportunity, I can see how this applies to our profession. The expanding mental health needs, the issues of social justice (of which the social determinants of health and health equity are part and parcel) are tremendous opportunities for us as a profession to continue showing our value.
In short, we are needed more than ever.
About the Author
Bill McDermott, MSW, LCSW
Bill McDermott, MSW, LCSW, has been an oncology social worker for 30 years. He recently retired as the Social Work Manager at NYU Langone Health Perlmutter Cancer Center. Bill served as AOSW Treasurer from January 2016 to December 2018. He has co-...
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Bill McDermott, MSW, LCSW
Bill McDermott, MSW, LCSW, has been an oncology social worker for 30 years. He recently retired as the Social Work Manager at NYU Langone Health Perlmutter Cancer Center. Bill served as AOSW Treasurer from January 2016 to December 2018. He has co-chaired two AOSW/APQS joint one-day conferences at NYU. Bill has served on the Finance Committee and Awards Committee, and has also presented at several AOSW conferences.
ArticlesCOVID’s Effects on the Oncology Social Work Profession