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Capturing the Sixth Vital Sign

Hollings Cancer Center team lands top prize at innovation summit

Heather Toeppner

The best health innovation idea at the 1st MUSC Health Innovation Summit was presented by Hollings Cancer Center. Photos by Dawn Brazell

Dawn Brazell | | May 18, 2018

It was dangerous waters with Nick the Shark circling the area at the first MUSC Health Innovation Summit. Competitors in the four groups at the Medical University of South Carolina were willing to take their chances, though, as they competed for a $15,000 prize for the best health innovation idea.

Though all four entries earned top marks, a Hollings Cancer Center (HCC) team landed the top prize with the entry “Capturing the Sixth Vital Sign” during the shark-tank style event. Tara Lock, administrator of the Oncology Integrated Center of Clinical Excellence, started off the competition by handing the judges aliases. The scenarios described people who all recently learned they had cancer and, on top of that, had life circumstances that was going to make it even more difficult for them to cope with that kind of diagnosis.

Though the scenarios were fiction, they all were drawn from real-life situations. The team’s idea: Implement a distress screening tool that can better detect patients in crisis and connect them with the resources they need that could improve quality of life and treatment.

“The electronic tool that we’ve developed allows us to not only identify barriers to care for our patients but also allows us to connect them with the specific resources that will help them with those barriers, from help with the financial burden of cancer care to the emotional and anxiety issues that come with a cancer diagnosis.”

The project has been in the works for a couple of years. When the need was identified for such a system, a Distress Steering Committee was formed. It included team members from behavioral medicine, informatics, spiritual care, social work and oncology clinical staff.

HCC team pitches at Innovation Summit

Oncology administrator Tara Lock presents the "Sixth Vital Sign" to the judges at the shark tank competition.

“We know that our patients are facing a number of stressors when given a new cancer diagnosis, and the struggle has always been in capturing that at various points in the cancer journey,” Lock said. “Patients don’t know what to expect as this is new to most of them, but we as a care team know what they are about to go through, and we wanted a way to assist them with resources they may not expect us to have.”

Psychologists Wendy Balliet, Ph.D., and Stacey Maurer, Ph.D., attended a Comprehensive Distress Screening certification program offered through Yale University. Based on insights from the training, the team selected a National Comprehensive Cancer Network distress self-screener and tailored it to fit the specific needs of HCC patients.

The program rolled out in March and was piloted with new cancer patients during their first visit. Now, with the prize money, HCC can do a full rollout by mid-summer to include the use of the iPads. Research shows that self-reporting, as opposed to staff administration, is a more accurate measure of distress, Lock says. A cancer diagnosis can bring up a multitude of issues, such as understanding the financial burden that comes with a cancer diagnosis, weighing if they will be able to continue working, figuring out how treatment may impact their ability to eat and what nutrition they need and how palliative care may fit into the equation.

“This tool comes at the perfect time when HCC is building on its support services to include financial counseling, genetic counseling, nutrition, social work, spiritual care, as well as psychosocial support. We intend to enhance our palliative and survivorship care this year as well. Cancer center physicians are trained to treat the disease but there are so many other issues with this diagnosis that extend beyond the exam room,” she said.

Drs. Mahvi and Cawley at the MUSC Health Innovation Summit

Dr. David Mahvi, left, and Dr. Patrick Cawley pose at the Innovation Summit with Nick the shark. 

“As patients’ needs grow beyond the clinical care, our goal is to walk lock step with them in their journey and provide the supportive care they need. Nobody goes through this alone.”

This is the first year that MUSC Health has hosted an innovation summit. Lock praises the initiative, adding that it makes it a priority for MUSC faculty and staff to not only think differently but also perform differently.

“The culture here is really around expecting us all to find better and more patient centric ways of doing things. The reality is that patients are people, and when you see them as whole people and not just a clinical diagnosis, your moral compass swings in the right direction, and the entire team focuses on the care of that patient - inside and outside of our walls.”

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