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Jul 28, 2022

Host Dr. John Sweetenham, of the UT Southwestern’s Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center, and Dr. Bridgette Thom, of the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, discuss a novel intervention to address financial toxicity and social need using the Electronic Medical Record.



Dr. John Sweetenham: Hello. I’m Dr. John Sweetenham, the associate director for clinical affairs at UT Southwestern Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center and host of the ASCO Daily News podcast. My guest today is Dr. Bridgette Thom, a researcher at Memorial Sloan Kettering (MSK) Cancer Center. We’ll be discussing a novel approach to address financial toxicity that uses the electronic medical record to streamline referrals to financial assistance and counseling for high-risk patients.

Our full disclosures are available in the show notes, and disclosures of all guests on the podcast can be found on our transcripts at

Dr. Thom, it’s great to have you on the podcast today.

Dr. Bridgette Thom: Thanks so much for having me.

Dr. John Sweetenham: Dr. Thom, the high costs of cancer care have caused major financial distress for many patients and their families. And this, of course, has been the subject of a great deal of literature in recent years. As you noted in your poster presentation at the recent ASCO Annual Meeting, there are limited interventions, despite a need for patient level and system-based solutions (Abstract 6596). Listeners to our podcast will remember a previous discussion that we had with Dr. Derek Raghavan from the Levine Cancer Institute, where they had instituted financial toxicity grand rounds to partially address this problem. Can you tell us about the novel approach that you and your colleagues explored using the electronic medical record to streamline referrals for financial assistance and counseling?

Dr. Bridgette Thom: I first have to credit our team for this work. Dr. Emeline Aviki, who is a gynecological surgical oncologist with keen interest in affordability and payment models, founded the MSK affordability working group several years ago. The first priority of the group was to determine the scope of financial hardship at our institution. At the time, we were absent a systematic screening process. So she, our data analysts, and representatives from our Patient Financial Services Program, developed proxy measures to figure out which patients might be having financial issues.

Looking through the medical record, we found those patients who had used one of our Patient Financial Services assistance programs, those who had billing issues, and those who had been referred specifically to social work for a financial issue. And in doing so, we found out that about 25% of our patients over a 2-year period were facing some sort of financial issue. Looking closer at that data, patients experiencing financial hardship weren’t necessarily being connected to the resources that we had available, which include copay assistance programs, financial assistance programs, and support for non-medical essential needs. So, for example, we had about 1 in 6 patients who had some sort of payment issue, but only about 20% of them had applied for financial assistance. And we wanted to figure out why this was happening and review the process.

In doing so, we discovered that too much burden was being placed on already burdened social workers who had to triage all those issues. So Dr. Aviki in her wisdom realized that care providers, physicians, advanced practice providers (APP), nurses needed to make direct referrals to the resources that we had. So we had a place for patients to go, we just needed an easier mechanism for them to get there. And that was the birth of the financial toxicity order set. And she and her team really powered through the developmental and testing phases working with IT, our strategy administration groups, clinical end users, our PFS team, that’s Patient Financial Services.

We built this order set that allows clinicians directly to refer to our resources. So clinicians, either through their discussions with patients or if patients bring up an issue, through the order set they can select a reason for a referral, the urgency of referral, the clinical location, etc. And then those orders go directly to our Patient Financial Services staff who then contact patients. We piloted this program in late 2020, early 2021 on 1 service, and then used that feedback to roll out the program first to our outpatient clinics and then to inpatient. That process involved a lot of educational efforts, getting the word out, and working with IT and our strategy team to stay on top of the data and monitor referrals over time.

Dr. John Sweetenham: Thanks. Could you say just a little bit more about the educational process that you use? I noticed in looking at your poster that the bulk of referrals came either from the clinic nurse or from the APP. Did you tailor your education in any way to the specific provider that was involved? How did you do that piece?

Dr. Bridgette Thom: Our affordability working group is an interdisciplinary team and we have nurses, social workers, physicians. So we did a lot of grand rounds work tailored to the audience be it by disease type or clinical role.

Dr. John Sweetenham: Great, thank you. This is clearly great work. There’s a lot of useful and helpful information in your abstract and in your poster. What would you say are the key takeaways from the intervention? What would you say about the scalability of this approach into community practice as opposed to a very large institution such as yours?

Dr. Bridgette Thom: One key takeaway from a process perspective was the need, like I said, for an interdisciplinary approach to handling the issues. That might seem obvious, but it was really crucial to the success of the project to engage key departmental stakeholders and decision makers very early in the process and keep them informed throughout the development of the order set. That definitely helped us to smooth a potentially bumpy road when we’re dealing with big systems change.

From an outcomes perspective, a key takeaway is the importance of having actionable items to empower the care providers. So while our institution has this amazing program, our Patient Financial Services program which provides counseling, and connects patients to tangible resources, this type of intervention I think could be scalable or applicable to a community practice or smaller hospital, provided there’s somebody, a social worker, patient navigator, [or] nurse, that can be a connection for patients and those potential resources that do exist out there.

For us going forward, we’re going to continue to evaluate the order set, both from the clinical end user and then also the Patient Financial Services staff to learn more about their perspectives and what can be adapted in the order. We also, of course, want to learn from our patients about their experience with the process, and so we have projects, both research and program evaluation, in the works to consider their perspective.

Dr. John Sweetenham: Great, thank you. And I guess 1 of the other aspects of this where there is obviously substantial opportunity is that, of course, currently, you’re still reliant upon the provider to place the order. And I wonder whether you feel that some form of screening for social need and financial hardship could be embedded within the electronic health record as a key next step, so that you proactively identify those high-risk patients.

Dr. Bridgette Thom: Definitely. And that is, in fact, our next step. We are currently piloting our financial hardship screening tool on 4 large services at our institution. The objective here is to, like you said, proactively identify patients who might be at risk and connect them to resources, be it tangible resources, or just counseling or insurance guidance, [and] do that before the hardship can occur. And the goals of our pilot phase are to (1) develop and refine a tool that’s both predictive, but also feasible to administer within a busy clinic setting. And then also (2) to work with our interdisciplinary team to adapt the workflow.

We can have a great tool, but if we don’t have a way to administer it in a clinic, it’s not going to do us any good. So for us, that means listening to feedback from, first and foremost, our patients and then the key stakeholders in the process. Our nurses have been integral to this process. We also, of course, our Patient Financial Services, staff, the clinical operations staff, obviously, IT, social work. And once we have these processes figured out and we have our tool solid, we will hopefully expand the screening to all services, and then use data to figure out the optimal screening interviews by disease and treatment type because we feel that this could vary by a patient’s treatment trajectory.

Dr. John Sweetenham: You note in your poster that additional multilevel interventions are needed to address the problem of financial toxicity at a systems level, and of course, what you have done here is a really great and important step in helping to identify those patients. But identifying those patients who are at particular risk is only beginning of addressing the issue. Could you elaborate a little bit more on other areas that you’re exploring in terms of the interventions that you’re using?

Dr. Bridgette Thom: Sure. And this idea of multi-level interventions comes from my social work training, where there’s an emphasis on viewing the individual as being part of a series of dynamic and interconnected relationships and systems: the social ecological theory. So if we think of concentric circles with the patient at the center, there are cascading relationships that are going to impact the course of their care. We radiate out to families and caregivers, a patient's workplace if they’re employed, the hospital and the providers there, and then look to bigger systems where a patient lives, their town. If it’s in an urban setting or a rural setting, the type of insurance that they have, if it comes from their employer, or if it’s a different insurance system, their community and then of course, broader, social, societal, more macro issues.

My point and that of many others who work in this space is that we have to consider the context. We can’t just build and test interventions that focus on a patient because the patient isn’t existing in a bubble. They’re existing in relationships with their caregivers, their health care providers, their health care system. And all of that exists in, for lack of a better word, a broken system of structural inequality, systemic racism, and conflicting values about health care as a right.

Patient-level interventions are indeed important, but we can’t place the burden solely on the patient. And we, as researchers and clinicians in this space, really need solutions that are going to reach across systems. I think, like you said, this project demonstrates that and this is something that I hear from patients in other work that I’m doing. For example, I’m working on a digital intervention to help young adult cancer survivors to build their financial capability and build their understanding of the health care system and insurance systems and financing and all of that. As I co-develop this intervention with patients and survivors, I’m hearing, 'This is great. I’m glad I’m learning these things, but at the same time, my co-pays are unmanageable,' Or, 'I might have to skip my survivorship appointment because I can’t afford to take off work that day.' I think we have to really think about, like I said, the context and the bigger picture of the scope of the problem and build and develop interventions that acknowledge that.

Dr. John Sweetenham: Well, as you say, very complex, multi-level problem and many interventions needed. But congratulations and kudos to you and your colleagues for addressing one component of this. And we’re really looking forward to seeing how this develops and progresses in the coming years.

And I’d like to thank you, again, for sharing your insights with us today on the ASCO Daily News podcast and telling us a little bit more about this great work.

Dr. Bridgette Thom: Thank you so much for having me. I want to just acknowledge all of the work of our team. It has really been a team effort. We’re looking forward to our next steps.

Dr. John Sweetenham: And thank you to our listeners for joining us today. You’ll find links to the poster discussed today on the transcript of this episode. Finally, if you value the insights that you hear on the ASCO Daily News podcast, please take a moment to rate, review, and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

You can hear more about the MSK Affordability Working Group’s efforts on the podcast, Cancer Straight Talk from MSK.  


Dr. John Sweetenham:

Consulting or Advisory Role: EMA Wellness

Dr. Bridgette Thom:

Stock and Other Ownership Interests (Immediate Family Member): Caladrius Biosciences, Mediwound, Sierra Oncology, Lipocine, MEI Pharma, Oncternal Therapeutics, Avadel Pharmaceuticals, Chimerix, Avidity Biosciences, Sutro Biopharma, Adma Pharma, Concert Pharmaceuticals, Processa Pharmaceuticals, Curis           An, IMV, Arcus Biosciences, Iovance Biotherapeutics, Qiagen, Revance Therapeutics, DermTech, Zimmer BioMet, Axonics Modulation, Halozyme, Autolus, Pavmed Inc       , Mereo BioPharma, and AADi

Disclaimer: The purpose of this podcast is to educate and to inform. This is not a substitute for professional medical care and is not intended for use in the diagnosis or treatment of individual conditions.

Guests on this podcast express their own opinions, experience, and conclusions. Guest statements on the podcast do not express the opinions of ASCO. The mention of any product, service, organization, activity, or therapy should not be construed as an ASCO endorsement.