Medical students and oncology fellows alike benefit from special training in psychological oncology that is integrated into their didactic curriculum in medical school, according to results from a 1-year pilot project.
AMELIA ISLAND, FloridaMedical students and oncology fellows alike benefit from special training in psychological oncology that is integrated into their didactic curriculum in medical school, according to results from a 1-year pilot project.
Although implementing the program was at times challenging, the students' satisfaction with what they learned and the increased interest in psycho-oncology research that the program has generated have more than justified the effort involved, Teresa E. Woods, PhD, said at the American Psychosocial Oncology Society (APOS) Third Annual Conference (abstract IV-3).
Dr. Woods, who is director of cancer psychology at the University of Wisconsin Comprehensive Cancer Center, Madison, admitted she was "impressed with the low levels of true psycho-oncology knowledge medical students have" when she and her clinical training director, James A. Stewart, MD, decided to start the program.
The goals of the study were twofold: to increase knowledge of psycho-oncology research and program development, and to facilitate identification of patients who may benefit from a referral to a specialist and integrate this knowledge into patient care.
At first there was some resistance on the part of the students, who tended to view psycho-oncology as a "soft" science. Another challenge was fitting the teaching element of the program into the students' already maxed out schedules. "These kids are tight with their time. There's a lot they have to learn. So integrating the curriculum into an already tight schedule was a formidable challenge," Dr. Woods said.
The topics covered included psychological issues in cancer from first diagnosis to completion of treatment, how to assess affective disorders, psychological approaches to pain management, caregiver stress, grief and bereavement, relaxation and imagery as management tools, and effective communication with cancer patients.
Fellows in oncology could elect to cofacilitate, with a licensed psychologist, a structured, 10-week group with cancer patients. They also met in a Journal Club once a week to discuss the latest literature in psycho-oncology and attended grand rounds with psycho-oncology staff. "Grand rounds were very popular. I'm told by the people who organize our grand rounds that they always have to move us into the largest pavilion they have because they are so well attended," Dr. Woods commented.
A Life-Changing Event
This project has taught her staff some important lessons, she added. Perhaps the most important is how hungry students are to learn about psychosocial issues in cancer. "There is a huge appetite for this on the part of our students," she said. "At first they feel like a fish out of water, but later they tell us that our program has been a life-changing event for them, and that they will never look at their patients in the same way."