Center News Magazine: Physician Referral Service Offers Easy Access to Treatment

Friday, October 1, 2010
(From left) Patricia Desmond and Suzanne Carmody (From left) Patricia Desmond and Suzanne Carmody

A cancer diagnosis can provoke fear and apprehension and often affects entire families. When patients or caregivers call Memorial Sloan Kettering’s Physician Referral Service (PRS) to learn about treatment options, they find compassion and expert guidance.

The service assists anyone who calls the toll-free number (800-525-2225) or makes an inquiry online at www.mskcc.org. Sometimes a caller may have a question regarding general information about cancer, but more often the contact is triggered by a recent diagnosis.

Most callers are feeling anxious and upset,” said Suzanne Carmody, Director of the PRS. “The first message we try to get across is ‘Let me see how I can help you.’ We let them tell their story and then ask questions to get a clearer picture of their situation. We are then able to help them decide on their next step — and which Memorial Sloan Kettering physician or service might be best for their needs.

In 2009, the PRS received more than 240,000 calls from patients, family members, physicians, and friends, and in the first six months of 2010 more than 122,000 calls were received. “The toll-free number makes it very easy to access the Referral Service,” Ms. Carmody said. “Anyone can call if they’re interested in seeing a physician here. They don’t need to live in the New York City area or have a previous connection with Memorial Sloan Kettering.

The PRS staff of about 50 professionals is organized into four teams with expertise in different cancer types. Each team consists of two oncology nurses and seven or eight referral specialists trained for their disease group. When patients or family members phone, the call is routed to the appropriate specialist.

At times of great stress — such as immediately following a diagnosis of cancer — people may not know where to turn,” Ms. Carmody observed. “Our staff counsels callers and helps focus them as to their next steps. Someone might call and say, ‘I found a lump in my breast this morning and I don’t know what to do,’ and the specialist will ask her whether she’s seen her doctor, or had a mammogram or an ultrasound.

The referral specialists know what information is needed from a patient before an appointment can be made, and they are familiar with each physician’s area of expertise. The nurses in PRS provide the clinical oversight and judgment for the more complicated referrals because there are many subspecialties within departments.

For those receiving appointments, the PRS staff also provides guidance about financial concerns such as insurance coverage. “At the time of scheduling, we try to connect the patients to one of our Patient Financial Service specialists so they can begin the registration process and ask any questions to better understand what their insurance will cover,” said PRS Administrative Manager Patricia Desmond. “Having this information better enables patients to make informed decisions about where to receive care and avoid a delay in starting any necessary treatment.

PRS staff members understand the patients’ and their family members’ need for compassion and support at a time when they often feel overwhelmed. “It’s important for them just to be able to talk to someone with knowledge about the type of cancer they have and who can assist them in determining how to proceed,” Ms. Desmond explained. “Even if they never come to Memorial Sloan Kettering for treatment, our specialists and nurses help patients and caregivers begin to feel more in control of their situation.