The Impact of Whole-Person Care: Q&A With Skip Hislop, VP of Oncology, and Mary Jones, Founder of Alight
Mary Jones (above, right) and her mother, the late Sarah Gorrell, had always been close. But when mother and daughter shared the experience of being breast cancer patients nine years apart, their bond deepened. As survivors, nothing brought them closer together than their shared desire to support those grappling with a new breast cancer diagnosis. Jones and her mother knew what the cancer journey was like, and what made a substantial difference in healing: having a support team you can count on.
Research shows that clinical care accounts for 20% of what determines “health.” Diet and exercise, your physical environment, and social and economic factors account for the other 80%.
Jones and her mother may not have had that data when they started the Alight Foundation in 2005 — now the Alight program offered at Cone Health — but they tried to imagine what life was like for patients with little means and many hurdles regarding access to care. A collaborative effort with Cone Health to provide informational, educational and financial support, the Alight Program first served newly diagnosed breast cancer patients at Wesley Long Cancer Center. Quickly, it became clear that the compassion, care and commitment of the Alight team had a direct impact on a patient’s ability to heal and thrive. Staff members helped patients understand their treatment plan, manage insurance, get to treatment, access emotional support and spiritual companionship, address and avoid financial barriers, manage stress and anxiety, join a support group, and attend classes in healing arts, horticulture, yoga and more.
Soon, Alight expanded to serve gynecological cancer patients as well — and today, under the leadership of VP of Oncology Skip Hislop (above, left), plans are in motion to expand Alight (now Alight Integrative Care) to all cancers and Cone Health campuses.
Gorrell passed away in 2017, but Jones attributes her mother’s longevity and her own good health to the care they both received. With Alight positioning to provide comprehensive support services to all cancer patients in the region, Jones is deeply moved to know the program she and her mother began in 2005 continues to grow to touch more lives.
Q&A With Skip Hislop, VP of Oncology, and Mary Jones, Founder of Alight
Based on your own experiences as breast cancer patients, you and your mother set up an endowment to create the Alight Program for patients who would come after you. How does it feel for the VP of Oncology to give Alight credit for an increase in survival rates?
Jones: It’s humbling, and Skip knows I get very emotional talking about Alight because it’s been a blessing in my life to see how it’s helped so many others. I’m very, very thankful. My family and I will continue to support this program as long as we can. The expansion means everything to me. It’s the answer to a lot of prayers. To have the opportunity for Alight services to expand across all Cone Health campuses is so exciting and I’m certain it will help so many people.
Having been a patient myself, I understand what it’s like when you hear the words, “You have cancer.” It is life-changing. But I was fortunate because I had the support I needed to get through treatment, the financial resources, the insurance, and the love of dear family and friends. There are so many patients out there who don’t have those needs met. That’s where my heart turned. I saw a void that we could fill because we have such an empathetic, giving community. And we have such dedicated medical staff who also are so compassionate. We knew if we all banded together and joined efforts then we could make something very special happen.
What will an expansion of Alight services mean for patients?
Jones: Some of the things Alight has done in Greensboro we hope to eventually have for the other campuses. Alight helps with transportation services. We provide informational support because there are so many unreliable sources of information on the internet. We have the Alight Guides, cancer survivors who are trained and then paired with new patients. A healing arts program. We also wanted to provide more of a warm living room environment so that when you visited the Alight room at the Cancer Center, you would feel like you were in someone’s home. That, to me, takes some of the scare factor out of it. I’m excited to watch Alight reach more cancer patients with this kind of support.
Hislop: There’s something that we’re working on across all specialties at Cone Health called “Keeping Care Local.” So, for example, if we have a patient in Reidsville who gets referred to Greensboro for breast cancer imaging, if they get a cancer diagnosis, they don’t have to drive back and forth. We have a cancer center in Reidsville, which means we can keep the patient local. All of our cancer centers have phenomenal teams and provide exceptional care. Regardless at what campus you’re seen, you get the same resources. At the end of the day, that is the ultimate goal with Alight, too.
How urgent is the Alight expansion?
Hislop: Everything’s urgent. It’s really about constantly elevating the level of care and meeting individual needs. It’s about taking care of the whole patient, not just the disease. Meeting the individual with where they are and who they are.
What is “whole-person care?”
Hislop: In cancer care, we have so much data. We know what people need and what they don’t have. Clinically, medically, we take exceptional care of people. We have that covered. When we have a person who receives a cancer diagnosis, we ask, “Who is this person that we are caring for?” Not the disease, the person. We know that the people who don’t have a good support network typically don’t have as good of an outcome as the people with a support network. Social determinants of health are a factor. What is a person’s socioeconomic status? Can they put food on the table? Some cancers we can cure, but if when people go home they can’t put food on the table, what are we solving for? Cone Health is part of this community and we are committed to making sure people have support and resources not only when they are going through treatment, but also after. We have an outstanding survival rate with our breast cancer patients and I do believe that’s in a large part due to Alight, due to the navigators, the social work, and the programming — support programs, resource programs, educational programs. When you are entrenched in cancer care, you just see and know the value this kind of support brings.
Could you give an example of how non-clinical, whole-person support services improve a patient’s outcome?
Hislop: Transportation support. You might have a patient who needs to come in 30 days in a row to get radiation treatment. If they don’t have transportation available to them and they don’t meet all of their treatments, their likelihood of having a good outcome is very poor. Think about the patients who can’t drive themselves and don’t have a support network — the fact that they can’t make it to treatments will affect their outcome. Then you have the Alight Guides, who give patients someone to connect with who has gone through the journey they are facing. That is huge because they can see that the disease can be beaten. It’s all things working together to help our patients have a better outcome.
What happens when low-income patients have financial concerns?
Hislop: For a lot of people who get a cancer diagnosis, the first thing they worry about is, “How am I going to pay for this?” Not how am I going to survive this or how am I going to tell my family or what am I going to do about my job. They say to themselves, “This is going to be detrimental to me financially. What do I do?” We have a software program that allows us to maximize everything for those patients — the insurance, Medicaid applications, COBRA coverage. Alight also provides up to $1,000 for newly diagnosed patients that had a demonstrated need. As we take this model and apply it to other cancers and campuses, there are so many programs and so much opportunity to help people.
When Cone Health absorbed Alight and brought the program inside the Cancer Center, how did you create such a successful transition?
Jones: It was a trust walk. Alight wanted to make a bigger impact and we desperately wanted to have direct patient contact. The only and best way to do that was to be on-site at Cone Health. We approached them and worked out a plan to come on-site and it just took off from there. We had the right leadership in place and we took the right steps forward. We trained former patients to become Alight Guides, who are paired directly with newly diagnosed patients. It took off and a lot of people are to thank for that, including Melissa Vogelsinger, former Alight Foundation Executive Director.
Hislop: Once we realized that we are on the same path, it was very easy to move things forward. There were growing pains, but we worked through it because we all knew bringing Alight on-site was the right thing to do for our patients. From the start, I always thought that the bigger picture would be that this could be a program for every kind of cancer patient. Over the years working with Mary, we both had that lightbulb and since then we knew this was the right direction to go for our community and for our patients.
Where does the handoff from clinical care to Alight care happen?
Jones: It’s really seamless. It’s so hard to separate the two. It’s all a part of this exciting work to constantly improve the patient experience and provide the highest quality patient care to give patients outstanding outcomes. Once you receive a diagnosis, both the Cone Health providers and the Alight team ask, “What can we do?” I don’t know how you separate what Alight does from the overall treatment that is provided by Cone Health. We’re all advocates.
Hislop: There are multiple touchpoints, too. We are here for patients at any point in their cancer journey.
What has come together to make now the right time to expand?
Jones: Skip has spearheaded this effort to increase the support services available to cancer patients — not just for women experiencing breast and gynecological cancers, but to patients diagnosed with all cancers. I’ve wanted Alight to become an integrated system of support for all of Cone Health’s cancer patients within all of their hospital settings. I believed it would happen. For Skip to embrace the same vision was such a blessing. His hard work and efforts have made this happen.
What will it take to expand Alight programming across all cancers and campuses?
Hislop: We have to add human beings — social workers, dietitians, pastoral care, case managers, care managers. Cancer care is so complex. There are so many moving pieces and parts. Patients need people to quarterback their care. We need to stay focused on always creating a seamless transition of care. We need to keep asking how we connect people and get them to where they need to go. We need to make investments that allow us to have people in place at every turn to make sure that patients get what they need, no matter what that is. I firmly believe in that, and that’s what we’re working toward with an expansion of Alight.
What is the spirit of Alight? What makes it so successful?
Hislop: It’s who we are. This is just the kind of care that we believe in providing patients every day. We show up and it’s who we are and how we are. We want all patients to have the best experience possible given their circumstances and that would be the Alight experience. If you get cancer and you are at Cone Health, you get the Alight experience. It really is about having an army of people who can take care of cancer patients and all of their needs.
Jones: It’s all about compassionate care. Alight represents a light of hope so patients can focus on what they need to do to get better and regain their health.