Answering the Cancer Call

It’s nice to see efforts continuing at a healthy pace to help employers and employees deal with one of the scariest threats to corporate 508254750-cancerhealth — the growth of cancer in our aging workforce.

The latest initiative is an impressive one, a program introduced recently by the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York through which it now collaborates with employers to simplify the whole process for their working cancer patients to get the help they need. New as the program is, it already has six employers signed on for this collaboration, including CBS Corp. and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

Through the program, called MSK Direct, each collaborative partnership is customized to the individual employer’s and its employees’ needs. A customized menu might include initial evaluations or second opinions, the options to immediately begin cancer treatment and support services such as counseling.

“Cancer care is extraordinarily difficult to go through, but accessing it in a time of distress shouldn’t be,” says Wendy Perchick, senior vice president of strategy and innovation at MSK. “MSK Direct is a prime example of our commitment to our mission, which includes making all aspects of our experience, care and services more accessible, seamless and beneficial to as many people as possible. In the face of a cancer diagnosis, we want patients, their family members and their employers to feel certain they are in caring and highly capable hands.”

Let’s face it, she and others say: The number of cancer diagnoses among working Americans is only going to climb as baby boomers continue to keep working out of a sense of purpose, but also out of necessity, whatever the cost to health, welfare and sanity may be.

As this story in HRE by Julie Cook Ramirez less than a year ago confirms, the number of people continuing to work with cancer diagnoses is now close to 15 million. And though there are a lot of positives around that for those employees (a sense of purpose, distraction away from their diagnosis, the list goes on), there are many challenges they bring to work as well, including diminished physical capabilities and stamina, and some mental impairments as they undergo chemotherapy.

The story also details things HR professionals can do to make such a devastating time for an employee a little more navigable, such as reworking their schedules, making a special effort to go over all benefits till they’re sure the patient understands and basically just being there to answer all the questions they may have.

As the numbers grow, so grow the costs. This post by me in 2014 put the price tag for employers at about $19,000 annually per 100 employees in lost work time and medical treatments, according to research from the Integrated Benefits Institute. (IBI President Tom Parry confirmed for me that these are still the latest figures.)

Numbers aside, let’s face it, there are a whole lot of us baby boomers in the workplace probably in a good bit of denial about what lies ahead. Many of these boomers’ employers might also be happily sharing in that denial as they continue reaping the benefits of older employees’ work ethics and knowledge.

But let’s also face the inevitability. None of us are getting any younger. And as workers age, health problems at work grow. As one friend, a seemingly ageless practicing family doctor in Seattle who likes to backpack, power walk, participate in medical missions abroad … and who’s just been diagnosed with breast cancer … put it, “No one ever told us boomers that life after 50 becomes a journey of loss — loss of our own health and loss of loved ones to the loss of their health. They should have told us this.” (And she’s a doctor!)

At least some employers are now facing this reality with their unstoppable boomers and helping them through the obstacle course that is cancer, however they want to be helped.

For some tips on how this might be done at your organization, and some immediate steps you can take to increase the value of cancer-care benefits and services you’re providing, consider this report — High Value Cancer Care: Guidance for Employers — that the Northeast Business Group on Health put out just last week. Here’s the news statement as well.

Roughly, as Dr. Jeremy Nobel, executive director of NEBGH’s Solutions Center, lays it out:

“Understanding what high-value services to look for when evaluating sites of care; making sure patients have access and coverage for seeking expert second opinions whether via health-plan-recommended specialists, a Center of Excellence or third-party second-opinion services; and encouraging employees to educate themselves about the benefits of palliative care and to request it early in the treatment process are all important steps employers can take right now.”

I guess I might only add that leaving them in the driver’s seat on directions to go and care to pursue, honoring their journey with the dignity they deserve, is a must.