Overcoming Cancer Challenges: The Vital Role of Comprehensive Cancer Support

BY Katie Chambers | September 12, 2023

The average cost of medical care and drugs in the year following a cancer diagnosis is $42,000, well beyond the U.S. median income of $31,000. This can be devastating to an individual who is not only battling the physical, psychological, and emotional effects of the illness, but now also facing the daunting financial impact. How can employers help cover these costs effectively while also providing general wellness support for their team members who are suffering?

Cancer recently emerged as the top healthcare cost for employers. In fact, Accolade, which improves employee healthcare outcomes and reduces employer healthcare costs through its all-inclusive suite of physician and case management services, estimates that the treatment of cancer worldwide will cost an estimated $240 billion annually by 2030. This change — and the potential impact of 10 million missed cancer screenings — has made oncology support even more crucial. As employers look to manage this growing healthcare threat, many may consider adding a new point solution.

Some employers are already offering an integrated solution that offers employees the cancer support they need. During a recent From Day One webinar titled “Overcoming Cancer Challenges: Is Your Existing Solution the Answer?” team members from Accolade discussed how a personalized approach to healthcare can offer cancer prevention and support that improves care, cost, and outcomes.

Enhancing Cancer Prevention and Detection

Preventative care is key, notes Erin Hirshorn, VP of case management at Accolade. But it’s often delayed due to extenuating circumstances. “About 9.5 million cancer screenings were delayed as a result of COVID,” Hirshorn said. As a result, 13% of employers have seen more late-stage cancers impacting their workforce and 44% expect that higher prevalence to continue. Employers would benefit both from investing in outreach encouraging employees to get cancer screenings, and from budgeting and bracing for the potential impact of a serious diagnosis down the line.

Through Accolade’s targeted digital approach, the organization takes a holistic look at each member’s health and reminds them to get annual checkups, connecting them to its own team of in-person and virtual primary care physicians as needed. “We ensure that the patients do have that proper screening to include any sort of annual labs or age-appropriate preventative screenings aligning to evidence-based recommendations,” said April Ries, VP of clinical operations at Accolade. This also includes communications that encourage a healthy lifestyle, including advice on tackling obesity or other issues that could make someone more at-risk to cancer.

Accolade’s stratification methodology allows them to quickly identify when a member may be facing a cancer diagnosis. “Where you start your treatment journey can make a big difference,” Hirshorn said, so Accolade prioritizes matching patients with the right nursing and care team to best match their diagnosis and personal circumstances. Expert panelists are available to virtually review patients’ medical records to make sure they are getting the best, most up-to-date, and most cost-effective care.

Different Approaches for the Oncology Clinical Pathway

“A cancer diagnosis really takes someone on a journey,” noted Morgan McHugh, VP of customer sales at Accolade, who moderated the conversation. “And it’s important to be specific about where [patients] are in that pathway and make sure that you’re serving them in the way that’s most meaningful.” McHugh notes that Accolade doesn’t approach cancer from one specific point solution but takes a more holistic approach. “We refer to this as integrated cancer support, all the way from prevention to either survivorship or palliative care,” McHugh said.

Morgan McHugh, bottom right, moderated the discussion among Accolade colleagues April Ries and Erin Hirshorn (photo by From Day One)

Ries notes that Accolade helps and encourages patients to attain second opinions, since the selection of a treatment plan is a crucial – and somewhat permanent – step in the cancer journey. Accolade’s team provides anticipatory guidance on what is to come and guides patients through the array of options available.

Hirshorn notes that Accolade provides specific programs for individual cancer journeys, including a women’s health program and a high-risk maternity program. It also has behavioral health experts on board to assess how patients are managing from that perspective, and a 24/7 nursing hotline where members can ask questions about their symptoms the moment they arise.

Even after patients are cancer-free, McHugh says, Accolade continues to work with them on organizing and paying any remaining bills and ensuring they are getting the proper screenings so that they stay in remission. Should patients need end-of-life support, Accolade is there too. “It takes a very special type of person to guide somebody through that decision making,” McHugh said, “to [help] make decisions in the context of their values, and in the context of their family life.” Accolade provides consultations with both palliative care and grief specialists.

Planning, Guidance and Whole-person Care

“Cancer is an incredibly complex clinical diagnosis. And it requires a multidisciplinary approach, both from a clinical perspective, but also from an administrative perspective, a financial perspective,” McHugh said.

Accolade provides patients with in-depth support on the administrative and financial side of their diagnosis. “How does leave of absence work? How does short-term disability work? How do I use my HSA account? All that information can be overwhelming,” Hirshorn said. “So, in addition to our clinicians, we have health assistants who are experts in this and can walk people through the different ways to file for those things.” Accolade also provides services in various languages to make sure communication issues are not a barrier to healthcare access.

“It can be a very overwhelming moment, not just for that person, but for their family,” Hirshorn said. And McHugh notes that unfortunately most patients get only 10 or 15 minutes at most with an in-person clinician, even when trying to process a devastating diagnosis. Accolade supplements those appointments with oncology consultations that are on average about 40 minutes long and provide a human touch to the discussion of next steps. “These are top experts across the country at major academic institutions,” McHugh said. “To get that level of guidance and peace and calm and have someone walk you through your next steps can be game-changing for the person going through the journey, [and] also the family members involved.”

Elevating Healthcare Experiences

McHugh notes that allowing for virtual options can help increase access, especially as the U.S. faces a primary care shortage. “Supplementing your existing strategy as an employer and providing some type of virtual opportunity can increase adherence to primary care visits and screenings,” she said. This can even include at-home testing, which can be a literal and figurative lifesaver for busy parents. “You want to make sure as an employer, you’re creating a lot of opportunity for individuals to get the care that they need in the form that fits their life best,” McHugh said.

It’s not just doctors who direct a patient’s oncological journey. Hirshorn explains that Accolade has a transition care program staffed by nurses who provide support alongside case managers to make sure patients receive a steady stream of personalized care in the hospital and also understand the treatment plan for when they are discharged. Pharmacists are also incorporated into the program to provide insight into the complex medication regimens and review them with case managers.

Accolade case managers can help patients navigate some of the barriers they may face with local care, including encouraging cross-collaboration among oncologists and accessing proper insurance authorizations. They can connect them with local cancer support groups to help them build their support network beyond their family and friends, as well as clinical psychological support for the depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues that can result from the cancer journey. “We have a firm belief that we can’t change healthcare alone,” McHugh said, so Accolade also partners with other organizations to provide additional support.

Providing Personalized Care for Employees

By engaging with organizations like Accolade, employers can provide a “one-stop shop” for employee healthcare needs where they can access guidance, support, advocacy, and care from a holistic perspective. Especially when navigating a diagnosis as daunting as cancer, such consistent and personalized care from an employer-provided service can make a life-saving difference in the lives of employees and their families.

Editor’s note: From Day One thanks our partner, Accolade, for sponsoring this webinar. 

Katie Chambers is a freelance writer and award-winning communications executive with a lifelong commitment to supporting artists and advocating for inclusion. Her work has been seen in HuffPost, Honeysuckle Magazine, and several printed essay collections, among others, and she has appeared on Cheddar News, iWomanTV, and CBS New York.


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