Alberta Order of Excellence member Barry Bultz

Barry Bultz PhD

"Psychosocial care is about whole patient care and I believe firmly that you cannot treat cancer without treating the distress that accompanies it. My personal philosophy is to live a meaningful life, one without regret and this is what I have tried to encourage in my patients…no matter where they are on their cancer journey, life can be meaningful."

Through his pioneering work at Calgary’s Tom Baker Cancer Centre, Barry Bultz helps patients and their families deal with the fear, depression and life concerns – the psychosocial factors – that create patient distress at diagnosis and during treatment. His greatest contribution to psychosocial oncology is the establishment of global acceptance of screening for distress as the 6th Vital Sign for cancer patients.

Barry was the first of his family to be born in Canada. His parents exemplified the strong work ethic of many new Canadians, encouraging their two sons to strive for excellence in both education and service to their community.

Barry earned his Bachelor of Arts in Psychology at Sir George Williams University (now Concordia) in Montreal. He followed it with an M.A. in Counselling Psychology from Pasadena College in California, and his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from United States International University in San Diego. He studied with well-known leaders in the field of psychology, including Viktor Frankl, whose work had a profound influence on him. From the beginning, Barry’s work focused on health promotion and quality of life. His initial research was with surgical patients, examining the psychological factors of recovery.

After earning his Ph.D., Barry returned to Montreal to practice at Douglas Hospital, while furthering his research at the Royal Victoria Hospital, at McGill University. In 1976, he took a position as a Clinical Psychologist at Nova Scotia Hospital in Dartmouth, while holding clinical/supervisory positions at Dalhousie University and St. Mary’s University.

After working in Halifax for five years, Barry received a call from a former colleague who encouraged him to apply for a role in Calgary for which she thought he would be well suited. It was for the first-ever Director of Psychosocial Oncology at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre. By strict definition, oncology is the study and treatment of tumours, and at that time, this was the main focus of cancer care. There was an unintended blind spot when it came to the psychological ravages of the disease. There was even less attention paid to a patient's social factors, such as family dynamics or financial pressures, factors that could directly and significantly affect prognosis and quality of life. The emerging field of psychosocial oncology was envisioned as a way to address these oversights.

Dr. Martin Jerry, head of the Southern Alberta Cancer Centre, invited Barry to Calgary for an interview. The task of building a new program from the ground up was both daunting and exciting to contemplate; Barry realized the significant opportunity to provide a much needed service to cancer patients and their families.

On September 1, 1981, Barry Bultz began his work with the Tom Baker Cancer Centre. At a time when Psychosocial Oncology was just becoming established globally, Barry and his team were called upon to go beyond merely adding a psychiatric component to cancer treatment, to develop a program that would focus on whole patient care through patient care, research and education.

Thirty-five years after he accepted the challenge, Barry Bultz continues in the same role. Yet, when it comes to cancer treatment, the world outside his office has changed profoundly, and he has played a major part in that change.

Under Barry's influence psychosocial oncology has grown to become a sub-specialty of cancer care, comprised of psychology, social work, psychiatry, spiritual care and resource counselling. It encompasses all stages, from diagnosis through treatment, to disease recurrence, to end-of-life care, and survivorship.

Of all the made-in-Alberta innovations that Barry has developed with his team, two stand out. One is the routine implementation of a standardized tool, a questionnaire that allows professionals to screen a patient for distress. Its basic formality is important: it tells patients that their concerns and distress are a legitimate part of their illness and that it is important for them to express the worries that come with a cancer diagnosis; and that those worries should be addressed.

The other significant innovation is Barry's advocating for the branding of distress as the 6th Vital Sign. It has been the masterfully simple step to giving psychosocial oncology the crucial role it deserves. Today, distress is accepted as the 6th Vital Sign across Canada, and has been adopted and endorsed by 75 international organizations and societies, including the International Union for Cancer Control.

Barry has worked to promote psychosocial oncology throughout Canada and internationally through the establishment and his Presidency of the Canadian Association of Psychosocial Oncology, through his tenure as an invited Director of the American Psychosocial Oncology Society and as the first Canadian to serve as President of the International Psycho-Oncology Society (IPOS), a body with 28 federated member countries.

As President of IPOS, Barry successfully brought the organization into official relations with the World Health Organization, and had IPOS declare screening for distress and the 6th Vital Sign as standards of cancer care.

Barry’s ground breaking work has led to numerous awards and formal recognitions. In 2004, he received the Award of Excellence in Medicine and Health from the Canadian Cancer Society - Alberta Division, and the Award of Excellence from the Canadian Association of Psychosocial Oncology. In 2012, he was granted the Dr. Peter Geggie Award for outstanding achievement and contribution to the Canadian Cancer Society. In 2013 Barry received the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal. This year, Barry has been named the recipient of the International Psycho-Oncology Society (IPOS) Arthur M. Sutherland Award – the highest honour in psychosocial oncology from IPOS.

But there is no greater reward for Barry than the difference he has made for his patients and their families. His unwavering concern for them has led him to become one of the world’s leading figures in psychosocial oncology.