One of UNC Lineberger’s hallmarks is its focus on team science, addressing complex cancer issues through a highly collaborative environment that reaches across disciplines to leverage expertise from many fields of study. A new partnership with the UNC School of Social Work demonstrates this cooperative approach, resulting in the first joint recruitment and appointment of two tenure-track faculty members — Assistant Professors Bridgette Thom, PhD, and Tess Thompson, PhD, MPH — who hold posts at the School of Social Work and UNC Lineberger.
“I am thrilled to join forces with UNC Lineberger to bring these esteemed researchers and educators to Carolina. We are building bridges together in an effort to improve the lives of vulnerable and marginalized populations in North Carolina and around the world,” School of Social Work Dean Ramona Denby-Brinson, PhD, said. “Our UNC School of Social Work researchers are committed to serving humanity by developing and implementing evidence-based policies and practices that address societal problems. The work of Drs. Thom and Thompson will bring an even greater depth of discovery to those efforts.”
About Bridgette Thom, PhD
Coming to UNC from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, Thom earned her master’s and doctorate degrees in social work from Columbia University. Her work examines the financial impact of cancer and how that can affect adherence to treatment. Early in her career at Memorial Sloan Kettering, Thom worked on research on the fertility experiences of young adult cancer patients, which then sparked her interest in the financial aspects of the patient experience.
“Through patient survey work, we found a whole litany of concerns around oncofertility, but one that was nearly always present was the financial issue, which, to me, highlighted disparities in outcomes and inequity in access,” Thom said. “I started trying to build my own program of research centered around financial hardship and affordability issues, and my social work background encouraged me to look at the problem as a systemic issue. The next step is developing interventions that will help fix the problems, and ideally, we want to have interventions that target every layer of the health care system with which patients interact.”
About Tess Thompson, PhD, MPH
Thompson studies how social determinants of health — such as financial stability, employment status and access to food and housing — affect cancer prevention and control, and how to improve support for cancer survivors as well as their caregivers. Before joining UNC’s faculty, she was a research assistant professor at Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis, where she earned a master’s in public health and a doctorate in social work. Thompson, who also has a master’s in English from Oxford University and is a former protocol associate for the American College of Radiology, also studies how to improve health equity through health communication.
“Collaborating with clinicians at Siteman Cancer Center in St. Louis led me to see the importance of caregiving and the family and social context — cancer affects not just the patient, but also their family members and friends,” Thompson said. “There has been a lot of research on how cancer affects the patient, but we don’t know a lot about whether a caregiver’s unmet needs for food, housing and transportation may have effects on the patient as well, especially if the caregiver is not the patient’s spouse and does not live with the patient.”
Collaborative research environment
Support from UNC Lineberger and the opportunity to work in a highly collaborative multidisciplinary environment were partly what drew Thom and Thompson to Carolina. UCRF funds were leveraged to provide startup funds to support their research at UNC.
Thom will continue her work to help educate patients about financial issues related to their care. Her projects include working with a digital educational company to create online content to teach young adults how to financially navigate the healthcare system, and developing educational tools to help cervical cancer patients better understand insurance issues.
“This position was a perfect fit for the kind of work I had been doing in that it combines my training in social work with my background in cancer,” Thom said. “Having this partnership and joint appointment will be integral to my next steps. UNC Lineberger has a top-notch Adolescent and Young Adult cancer program, which was also a big draw.”
Thompson is looking forward to getting back into teaching while continuing to build upon her research. She’s working to develop health care interventions that support partnerships between Black women with breast cancer and their caregivers, and she hopes to find ways to support the health, social and psychological needs of cancer patients and caregivers at a more systemic level.
“I am interested in exploring whether the cancer care setting is the most appropriate place to address patients’ and caregivers’ social needs, or whether in some cases it may be more effective to partner with community organizations or advocate for policy changes to support patients and families,” she said. “There was no doubt in my mind that the UNC School of Social Work and Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center would be the best place to carry out this work. The interdisciplinary collaboration here is wonderful, and I’m looking forward to working together with my new colleagues to serve cancer patients and their caregivers across North Carolina.”
Societal and systemic factors are critical issues to address as UNC continues its work to advance cancer research and care, said UNC Lineberger member Donald L. Rosenstein, MD, director of the Comprehensive Cancer Support Program and professor of psychiatry and hematology in the School of Medicine.
“We are excited to have Drs. Thom and Thompson, two outstanding social work researchers, bring their expertise to the Lineberger team,” said Rosenstein, who worked closely with the School of Social Work to bring Thom and Thompson to UNC. “Examining cancer through a social work lens is so important to improve our understanding of all the factors that can contribute to different patient experiences and outcomes.”