Team member highlight: Whitney Burton
VCU Massey Cancer Center’s social workers are a really special group. They work with our patients to address psycho-social and emotional needs that can accompany a cancer diagnosis. In this month’s team member highlight, we talk with licensed clinical social worker Whitney Burton about her role and some of the most common needs of our patients.
How long have you been with Massey, and can you describe your role?
I’ve been with Massey for about three-and-a-half years. My role is to be a point person for our patients and help them navigate through the continuum of care, from diagnosis to treatment to survivorship. A lot of what I and our other social workers do is acute crisis management. When a patient is diagnosed, it’s shocking and it changes their world forever. So, first I help patients manage those feelings. Then, I work with them to develop a game plan to get them through their care.
Generally, we start by helping the patient focus on adjusting and coping with their illness and treatment. We try to take a clinical perspective to address mental health issues, family conflict and potential caregiver burnout.
Massey is unique because we’re part of a safety net hospital, which means we treat patients regardless of their ability to pay. Because of this, many of our patients are dealing with issues that extend far beyond the cancer diagnosis. For these patients, we take a case management approach and focus on the social determinants of health, such as transportation, shelter, nutrition and access to healthcare—very basic things that many of us take for granted. We also help patients navigate Disability and Social Security, since many won’t be able to return to work after they finish treatment.
Additionally, we work with patients on advanced health care directives, or living wills. Virginia recently launched the Honoring Choices initiative to ensure patients’ wishes are respected when it comes to end-of-life care. We have implemented this program in the Supportive Care Clinic, and it is our hope that this program will be present in all Massey clinics in the future.
How did you get into social work?
When I was in high school I wanted to go into nursing. Unfortunately, that didn’t quite work out. I applied to nursing school several times but was denied—I never quite understood why. I applied to VCU and pursued a degree in psychology.
After undergrad, I started researching graduate school options and came across VCU’s Master’s in Social Work program. It was highly ranked, and I thought it would be interesting to do social work in a health care setting. I applied and got in. It was a two-year program and during the second year I ended up getting an internship in Massey’s Bone Marrow Transplant Program. In a way, the oncology field came to me and I’m so grateful for it. I originally thought I wanted to work with kids or possibly in women’s health, but I ended up loving being at Massey. It was such a special place, and so inspiring to be part of such a caring team. It just so happened that there was a social work position open at Massey when I graduated in 2013, so I applied and have been here ever since.
Has your role changed at all?
I think as any social worker develops their practice they kind of make it their own. One thing that has changed is that I’m now licensed, which means I can focus more on the mental health aspects of patient care and work with the clinical team to help resolve those issues. I became licensed in July of this year.
Do you deal with a lot of mental health issues?
I do think that our patients often come in with underlying mental health needs or they develop them during treatment. Something that I’ve become more aware of recently is the trauma that patients go through after diagnosis. It’s our responsibility to make this experience as good as possible. It is also important to recognize how these factors may also continue into survivorship, which can create a great deal of anxiety and stress. I have the privilege of collaborating with my social work colleagues and oncology social work team, who I consider my greatest mentors. Additionally, I often consult with our clinical psychologist, Tamara Orr, Ph.D., whose professional judgment I highly value.
How do you integrate into the treatment team?
I can’t say enough about the people with whom I work. Relationships and open communication are really important in my work. Most of my referrals come from our nurses. Each patient undergoes a psychosocial distress screening, which helps identify psychological and social needs before treatment begins and is another means of referral for our social workers. We try to intervene as early as possible to avoid major events or crises.
What are some of the most common issues you deal with?
Access to transportation is probably one of the biggest needs I see, especially with our patients from the Petersburg area. I also work with a lot of patients on financial assistance for copays. In addition, caregiver burnout is fairly common. Unfortunately, a lot of times caregiver needs are overlooked, and I think we can all do a better job in supporting them. We also help coordinate hospice care and end-of-life planning.
What is one of the most challenging parts of your job?
Systematic barriers, such as changing healthcare policy, can be challenging. One very frustrating issue is that middle class patients often get stuck in a gap in terms of qualifying for services like financial assistance. Recognizing this is very hard because there’s very little that we can do. Also, helping patients cope with having to ask for help when they’ve never had to before can be difficult.
What are some of the most rewarding aspects of your job?
Good patient outcomes and lasting relationships are especially rewarding. I remember one patient in particular that I met during my internship in the Bone Marrow Transplant Program. She was very, very ill and had a 12-year-old son. I was really worried about her and what would happen to her son if she didn’t make it. But, now I see her when she comes back for follow-up appointments and she looks amazing. Her son is a teenager now, and every time I see her I ask how he’s doing and she always appreciates that I remember. The gratefulness that our patients express means a lot to all of us. We have to stay mindful of that and let it help keep us grounded.
How do you coordinate resources for patients?
As I said before, relationships are really important in my field. I rely on a my network at VCU, but I also rely on social workers throughout the community. The social work community in Richmond is pretty small and, for the most part, we all know each other. It’s really helpful to call up old classmates and colleagues at other organizations and problem solve with them. We all keep abreast of the resources available throughout Richmond and try to help each other whenever possible.
What are some of the biggest needs in Richmond?
Without a doubt, housing is the biggest need in Richmond. There’s nothing more heartbreaking than working with a patient who has nowhere to go.
What do you do when you’re not at work?
Well, I’m a huge VCU Basketball fan, embarrassingly so for some of my coworkers! So, during basketball season you will probably find me at the game or with friends watching on television.
Also, by the time people read this I will be married to my wonderful husband, so getting ready for that has occupied a lot of my time lately.