The 6-year-old private oncology group Georgia Cancer Specialists (GCS) does more than provide chemotherapy and surgery for its seriously ill patients. It gives patients all the tools they need to cope with and adjust to their disease.
Compassion such as this is what makes the 25-office-strong GCS one of this year’s Atlanta Business Chronicle Health-Care Heroes, in the Health-Care Innovations category. The annual awards are sponsored by Atlanta Business Chronicle and were presented at a May 17 dinner.
GCS is the first private or public practice in Georgia to incorporate full support services for its patients, including behavioral medicine, nutritional education and a trained volunteer support system for newly diagnosed patients. Its 30 doctors specialize in all forms of cancer and can work out of 24 hospitals in the Atlanta area.
What sets the staff apart is their desire to help cancer patients and their families understand the changes they’re about to undergo. For example, Kate Aliesan manages a 2-year-old department of four licensed clinical social workers who offer everything from support groups for patients to community resource information for families. Their goal is to help a patient “stabilize emotionally.”
“We provide emotional support for patients who are dealing with a new diagnosis all the way through to a treatment process or to surgery,” Aliesan said. “A patient undergoes many lifestyle changes when they have a cancer diagnosis and their life may be turned upside down. Their role within a family can change and they can even experience reactions to their treatment that may cause pain, fatigue and nausea. But the two most common reactions to a diagnosis are depression and anxiety. When we can help a patient recognize that up front, and help them develop the coping skills they need to stabilize, it’s not as debilitating.”
Aliesan said her staff forms relationships with the families of patients as well so they can recognize any sorts of changes in family dynamics and deal with them as they occur.
“It says a lot about GCS that they have services like this,” Aliesan said. “We want to create a safety net for families and patients in what can be a real scary situation. We want to build in some predictability. But we’re just part of an interdisciplinary team that’s readily available to patients. Someone’s always on call over here, from nurses on up.”
The practice also focuses on the nutritional needs of its patients, Aliesan said, because cancer often causes changes in the way a patient’s body uses food. Surgery, chemotherapy and other treatments create additional nutritional demands, with patients needing as much as 20 percent more calories and 50 percent more protein in their diets.
Treatments are easier to tolerate when a patient is well-nourished, she said, enabling them to be more active and experience fewer side effects. GCS also cares about its employees. Aliesan said many employees who deal with seriously ill people undergo a phenomenon called compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue is a state of tension and preoccupation with a patient’s illness that causes caregivers to perform poorly on the job, increases the number of mistakes they make, lowers their morale and affects their personal relationships. In some instances, compassion fatigue has even been known to damage a caregiver’s own health.
“Knowing how hard the staff works and how they’re all in what is understandably a stressful job, it’s good to know that the company has developed a program that helps its employees deal with the stress and grief of caring for seriously ill patients,” said Lynn McDermott, GCS spokesperson.
Aliesan, who also manages the practice’s employee assistance program, agreed.
“There’s a lot of stress in dealing with folks who have a chronic illness,” Aliesan said. “So we do what we can to help our employees cope at the optimum level. Because we’re so focused on quality care for our patients, we don’t want our employees extremely stressed or burned out or using negative coping mechanisms.”