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Navigators Help Cancer Patients Manage Their Care

Article date: December 6, 2013

By Stacy Simon

Receiving support from a patient navigator can make a difference in the way newly diagnosed cancer patients feel about their care. According to a study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, patients with a nurse navigator rated their care higher and reported fewer problems than patients without one.

The study involved about 500 people in Seattle, Washington, newly diagnosed with breast, lung, colon, or rectal cancer. Half of them were assigned to patient navigators, all oncology nurses, who helped them for 4 months by calling them on the phone, meeting with them, and going with them to doctor visits. The people in the group not assigned to navigators received educational material designed by a patient advisory committee.

According to surveys conducted by researchers, the patients who had navigators felt more involved in their care, more informed as to how cancer affects their life, and better prepared for the future. They were more likely to say that the health care team had gone out of their way to make them feel better emotionally. And they found fewer problems with psychological and social care, coordination of care, and health information.

Patient navigators and the Affordable Care Act:

You may also choose to enlist the help of a patient navigator when enrolling through the new health insurance marketplaces.

The Affordable Care Act requires that each state health insurance exchange establish a navigator program to help people and businesses make informed decisions about enrolling.

Find a trained counselor in your area at LocalHelp.HealthCare.gov.

What is a patient navigator?

According to the American Medical Association, a patient navigator is someone who provides personal guidance to patients as they move through the health care system. Patient navigators may have professional medical, legal, financial, or administrative experience. Or they may have personally faced health care-related challenges and want to help others who find themselves in similar situations.

Navigators can be employed by community groups, hospitals, or insurance companies. They may be paid by those organizations, they may be volunteers, or they may be independent consultants hired by people who want help managing their complex medical needs.

Training and credentials

So far, the patient navigator profession is not regulated. While many organizations offer certificates, there are no state or national credentials or licenses. However, this may be changing. The National Association of Healthcare Advocacy Consultants (NAHCAC) is in the process of developing a nationally recognized set of credentials.

Some patient navigators are nurses assigned patient navigator roles at the hospitals where they work. Others come to the profession without a medical background and are trained by organizations like the American Cancer Society in collaboration with a partner hospital in their community.

“Patient navigators remove barriers to care,” said Rian Rodriguez, MPH, director of the American Cancer Society Patient Navigator Program. “They ensure that patients don’t fall through the cracks so they can complete their treatment and have a more successful health outcome.”

What patient navigators do

Patient navigators work with patients and families to help with many different needs associated with the health care system. This may include helping with insurance problems, finding doctors, explaining treatment and care options, going with patients to visits, communicating with their health care team, assisting caregivers, and managing medical paperwork.

Not every patient navigator does all of these things, and there is no single list of services. Some navigators only work with senior citizens, others only with cancer patients, or others only to solve medical billing problems. It depends entirely on the individual’s business and practice.

The original goal of patient navigation was to help people overcome barriers like poverty, low literacy, or lack of health insurance that were preventing patients from gaining access to medical care. However, care for illnesses like cancer can be so complicated that patients, regardless of income or education level, can benefit from navigation. In fact, under a new requirement for accreditation by the American College of Surgeons Commission on Cancer, cancer centers must provide patient-navigation services by 2015.

Finding a patient navigator

The American Cancer Society program has patient navigators at 125 hospitals, treatment centers, and other health care settings throughout the country. Call us at 1-800-227-2345 anytime day or night to find out if there is an American Cancer Society Patient Navigator Program in your area.

For help with a specific medical condition or illness, a good place to start is with your treatment center. Many hospitals and cancer centers have patient navigator programs.

If you want to hire your own private patient navigator, try searching the directory at the National Association of Health Care Advocacy Consultants website to find an NAHCAC member in your area.

Citation: Nurse Navigators in Early Cancer Care: A Randomized, Controlled Trial. Published early online November 25, 2013 in Journal of Clinical Oncology. First author Edward H. Wagner, MD, MPH, Group Health Research Institute, Seattle, Wash.

Reviewed by: Members of the ACS Medical Content Staff


ACS News Center stories are provided as a source of cancer-related news and are not intended to be used as press releases. For reprint requests, please contact permissionrequest@cancer.org.

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