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Pitt study finds cancer patients do better when mental health care is part of treatment

Lung cancer patients take pills at home that shrink tumors by blocking a signal that tells cancer cells to grow.
Nam Y. Huh
Lung cancer patients take pills at home that shrink tumors by blocking a signal that tells cancer cells to grow.

Navigating a serious health diagnosis, like cancer, is emotional. And a new study from University of Pittsburgh researchers finds that when mental health treatment is integrated into oncology care, patients are less likely to end up in the hospital.

The study, published this week in “The Lancet,” builds on previous research that shows a strong link between poor mental health and higher health care utilizations.

The Pitt researchers developed a treatment model in which cancer patients received mental health care from a therapist or social worker who was part of their oncology treatment team. This group was then compared to another set of patients who were referred out for therapy. Those who received the integrated mental health treatment were significantly less likely to visit the ER or be hospitalized.

The group that got integrated mental health treatment received cognitive behavioral therapy: they focused on relaxation techniques and changing core beliefs about themselves or their environments. This group reported lower rates of depression, fatigue, and pain when compared to patients who only received therapy referrals.

Lead author Jennifer Steel of Pitt specializes in developing care interventions to manage cancer-related symptoms and improve the quality of life for oncology patients. In addition to the behavioral health treatment, she suspects that the increased contact with the care team through weekly therapy visits played a role in patient outcomes since a mental health provider might notice when someone’s health was declining.

“We might be able to either encourage them to talk with their caregiver, to bring them in to see their oncologist,” said Steel.

Steel says cancer centers should consider introducing this integrated model since unplanned medical care is more costly to both patients and health systems. She’d next like to study if other factors, such as age or gender, play a role in the effectiveness of integrated mental health care for cancer patients.

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio. As a contributor to the NPR-Kaiser Health News Member Station Reporting Project on Health Care in the States, Sarah's print and audio reporting frequently appears on NPR and KFF Health News.