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High-Value Care, Workplace Flexibility Aid Employees with Cancer

Employers are working with centers of excellence to tackle cancer's challenges

A woman wearing a face mask in a park.

Leading-edge employers are using best practices to support employees with cancer. By doing so, these organizations are serving as role models that others may want to follow.

Many of these best practices are described in a guide from Northeast Business Group on Health (NEBGH), an employer-led coalition. Delivering Value in Cancer Care: The Employer Perspective features case studies and examples of employer initiatives to support employees and family members with cancer. It also gives advice on how HR leaders can engage with vendors and health plans to make employees aware of the cancer-related benefits and services available to them, such as:

  • Screenings for early detection.
  • Second and expert medical opinion services.
  • Care-navigation tools and services.
  • High-quality networks of providers.
  • Centers of excellence (COEs) specializing in cancer care.
  • Behavioral health counseling.
  • Palliative and supportive care.

High-Quality, High-Value Care

The American Cancer Society estimated that in 2020, more than 1.8 million new cancer cases would be reported in the U.S., resulting in 606,520 deaths—a number that could go higher due to people avoiding cancer screenings and exams because of COVID-19 fears.

"Cancer is a complex and expensive disease that impacts all aspects of a patient's life, not just their health," said Candice Sherman, CEO of NEBGH. "For a growing number of employers, ensuring that employees and families receive high-quality cancer care and maximizing the value of spending on care are top priorities. Unfortunately, while these priorities are clear, the road map to achieving them is not." The guide seeks to address that need.

Partnering with Centers of Excellence

An August/September Willis Towers Watson survey of 397 large U.S. employers found that a rising number of employers—now 53 percent—offer access to COEs through their health plans. That number is likely to increase, as 92 percent believe COEs will effectively improve the quality of care provided to employees.

Employers report that COEs provide highly rated, price-efficient cancer care with a range of support services. Many COEs are also offering these services to employees and their families no matter where they live.

The NEBGH guide referenced, for instance, New York City's Memorial Sloan Kettering (MSK) Cancer Center's MSK Direct, a program in which the center's team of oncology doctors and nurses, social workers and care advisors help employees or family members with cancer to navigate their care.

The program also provides cancer-detection and education services. One client, CBS Corp., uses the program to offer employees onsite screenings for lung, breast and colon cancer, seeing this service as a chance to address employees' fears and emphasize the importance of early detection.

"This program was a way for us to increase awareness about cancer screenings and have a credible source such as MSK behind us to help deliver the message," said Michelle Martin, CBS vice president of employee engagement.

Another example—not from the NEBGH guide—involves City of Hope, an independent research and treatment center near Los Angeles for cancer and other life-threatening diseases. City of Hope recently launched AccessHope to provide expert second opinions and other cancer care services.

AccessHope connects cancer specialists to employees, family members and their treating oncologists wherever the patients are located. It also works with an employer's health care partners, including health plans, third-party administrators and pharmacy benefit managers, to provide collaborative services, such as diagnosis and treatment plan consultation and recommendations on possible clinical trials.

"Best practices in oncology are evolving at an extraordinary pace, and the health plans and delivery system need support to ensure that all patients have consistent access to the most current data and best treatments," said Harlan Levine, president of strategy and business ventures at City of Hope and AccessHope board chair. The program, he said, aims to improve opportunities for survival while "helping patients to stay in their own communities, with local physicians of their choice."

Workplace Accommodations

Along with early detection and advances in medical treatment, a supportive employer can make a big difference in recovery, studies show.

One in 8 women will receive a breast cancer diagnosis at some point, according to the American Cancer Society. While breast cancer is a leading cause of disability absences, survivors now spend an average of two weeks less out of work than they would have spent a decade earlier due to better care management and supportive employers, according to new research by Unum, a disability insurance provider.

Last year, the average length of a short-term disability claim for breast cancer was 64 days, down from 78 days in 2010, according to Unum's analysis of claims.

"Work often provides a sense of normalcy and support for employees with breast cancer during a time of uncertainty," said Mandy Stogner, senior leave and disability consultant at Unum. "This is why the role of employers is so important during diagnosis, treatment and return to work."

Aside from grappling with a diagnosis, patients with breast or other cancers face a wide range of side effects from treatment, Unum reported. These include a weakened immune system, fatigue and strained focus.

Stogner advised that employers take the following support actions and provide accommodations:

  • Respond quickly and offer resources after employees inform their managers or HR of a cancer diagnosis.
  • Create a flexible schedule or reduced workload, ensuring that employees don't have to stand or sit for too long.
  • Build in extra breaks so they can fight fatigue.
  • Communicate often to keep the employee engaged.
  • Provide feedback and coaching on performance.

Update: A Follow-Up Report

On Dec. 2, 2020, the Northeast Business Group on Health Released Cancer Survivorship: Challenges and Opportunities for Employers, a new 48-page guide to help HR and benefits leaders understand the complex issues associated with cancer survivorship and to create a workplace that supports people living with cancer.

"There are encouraging statistics that show an increase in the number of people surviving with cancer but they often don't reveal how survivors are faring physically, mentally, socially or economically," said Patricia Goldsmith, CEO of CancerCare, which is leading pilot projects associated with workplace survivorship. "Employers can play a key role in this experience."

According to NEBGH's Sherman, "Some people are unable to work due to treatment or the effects of treatment, but many are able to continue to work or to return to work after some period. In fact, most cancer survivors are eager to work because it provides a coping mechanism, enables a sense of purpose and motivation, boosts self-confidence, fosters social support and aids in financial stability."

Related SHRM Articles:

Health Care Advocates Help Employees Through Serious Diagnoses, SHRM Online, October 2020

A New Role for Critical-Illness Insurance in the Coronavirus Era, SHRM Online, September 2020

Employers Look to Value-Based Health Care Strategies, SHRM Online, November 2019

How to Support Employees with Cancer, HR Magazine, June 2016

Employers Say Cancer Care Is Priority, but Services Lacking, SHRM Online, May 2016


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