West Virginia University researchers are working to improve the well-being of patients diagnosed with a brain tumor through rehabilitation. The team, led by Nicole Stout, a researcher with the WVU Cancer Institute and research assistant professor in the School of Public Health, recently conducted a pilot study in which an occupational therapist embedded in a brain tumor clinic was able to make referrals and initiate interventions on the spot. The approach is being used in only a few cancer centers throughout the country.
The team published their findings in Neuro-Oncology Advances.
Brain tumors place major limitations on day-to-day activities, according to Dr. Sonikpreet Aulakh, a neurooncologist and assistant professor in the School of Medicine and Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute.
“These include but are not limited to cognitive disabilities, neurological weakness, memory impairment, emotional adjustments, problem solving, reading problems and language usage,” she said.
Such functional areas benefit from intervention, particularly early intervention, but less than 9% of individuals with measurable functional declines receive rehabilitation referrals—a gap that widens in rural areas, such as West Virginia, where easily accessible supportive care is more limited.
In 2022, WVU researcher and occupational therapist Jacob Greenfield was embedded in Aulakh’s brain tumor clinic where he was able to assess 61 select brain tumor patients for changes to key functional areas.
“I was screening patients, looking for functional deficits, in order to get ahead of the common, anticipated symptoms that come along with typical diagnosis and treatment for brain tumors,” said Greenfield, who is an assistant professor in the School of Medicine.
He made 51 referrals to home health services, speech/audiology, physical therapy, occupational therapy, neuroophthalmology, community-based services and social work. Ten individuals received interventions.
“By integrating an occupational therapist into our brain tumor clinic, we are able to assess our patients' functional needs right at the time of their medical visit and offer suggested interventions that can help them function better,” Stout said. “It also promotes a great multidisciplinary team approach so that the neurooncologist and therapist are on the same page regarding the patients’ needs and plan of care.”
Aulakh notes that not only can interventions increase patients’ quality of life, but they can also have an impact on outcomes.
“Specialized programs such as physical/occupational therapy, neuropsychology, nutrition, palliative care and home health care continue to help patients gain their strengths in a multifaceted manner,” Aulakh said. “As a result, treatment-related side effects can be better tolerable with minimum treatment interruptions. Completion of, as well as compliance to, treatments lead to better survival outcomes.”
“This work is part of a larger study that is ongoing, but this first look at our data demonstrates that the model is feasible in an oncology clinical setting and effective at identifying and managing emerging needs of our patients,” Stout said.
MEDIA CONTACT: Cara Gillotti
Health Research Writer
WVU Cancer Institute