Breaking Down the Basics of Patient Navigation in Cancer Treatment

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Hearing the word “cancer” during a doctor’s visit is a situation most people fear. Many people will tell you shock was the first feeling felt when they, or someone they loved, received the news. There is, unfortunately, no correct formula for communicating with someone that they have cancer. For many, the result can be perceived as a death sentence, and the combination of anger, fear, despair, and hopelessness can take shape, leaving a profound effect on a patient’s mental and spiritual well-being.

Even after the initial revelation, it is essential for patients and their loved ones to learn and understand what comes next. Actual healthcare is more than what happens to a patient in the confines of a doctor’s office. Patient care extends beyond a medical facility and it is important to acknowledge how certain factors may affect a patient’s treatment, such as:

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  • Access to care (finances, transportation, etc.)
  • Services available for treatment and recovery
  • Deciphering medical jargon and the influx of bills and insurance statements
  • Social determinants of health (economic stability, education, health literacy, neighborhood and built environment, and social and community context)

Thinking of what’s next is an essential task for patient navigators. When a patient is diagnosed, they are often inundated with a multitude of information from oncologists and their specialties to the different treatment options they now have to consider (based, of course, on their diagnosis). In many cases, patients aren’t sure what the first step is or what role certain members of the care team play. Patient navigators assist patients across the entire healthcare continuum. They do this by helping patients communicate their needs and questions effectively while addressing the next steps with their healthcare provider to ensure they have the information they need to make the best decision for their health. 

So in what ways are patient navigators making a difference in the healthcare space?

Driving Down Costs

As the medical industry starts to unpack and embrace the holistic definition of wellness and healthcare, patient navigators have surfaced with more importance in the role of healthcare than ever before. A study published by JAMA Oncology reveals the quality of care and the care coordination a patient navigator facilitates aids in driving down patient costs. Average costs declined by $781.29 per patient per quarter, creating a total cost savings of $19 million annually across the cancer treatment network.

Breaking Down Barriers to Care

Unfortunately, the healthcare system is overwhelmed, especially with the added layer of the pandemic and the residual effect it had on the healthcare industry. Sadly, when there is overwhelm, patient barriers frequently go unaddressed.

Barriers to care unfortunately come in many shapes and forms when it comes to patients getting the help they need. Examples of barriers include, but are not limited to:

  • Financial issues
  • Sourcing transportation
  • Lack of care for children or elderly relatives
  • Shortage of education around specific treatments and screening options
  • Speaking a different language
  • Mistrust of the health care system
  • Fear of finding out they have cancer 

When patients lack guidance, answers, or resources, they become discouraged.. Patient navigators become the first line of defense for patients and their families and getting past the barriers is the first and most imperative step.

Navigating Middle Ground

Regarding cancer treatment, there are three sides to a patient’s story (the patient, the provider and the patient navigator), and navigators are experts in playing and navigating “the middle ground” of it all. While doctors are concerned with overseeing treatment options and monitoring for outcomes, patients carry the weight of the diagnosis, managing self-care, deciphering medical bills and payment. Patient navigators provide the “middle ground” providing patients with personalized, patient-centered support and resources in order to ensure every individual has access to quality care. It’s one thing to be there for the patient; however, navigators must also be ready to communicate with the providers, medical assistants, surgery centers, hospitals, or wherever the patients are being seen. Being prepared and knowledgeable about all aspects of a patient’s care is essential. Another element in patient navigation is staying up to date on all of the changes in the healthcare system, the provider you work for, changes in insurance, or state and federal laws. 

Encouraging Patient Empowerment & Self Advocacy

Playing an active role in one’s health is vital, and patient navigators aid in fueling patients with the tools, knowledge, and ability to advocate for themselves when patients find themselves one-on-one with a physician. For patients, self-advocating allows them to speak on their behalf and play an active role in their health. In turn, this helps them adhere to their actual treatment while helping to provide a complete understanding of what they’re taking part in when it comes to treatment.

The need for patient navigators will likely grow as the medical industry continues to hone in more than ever on patient-centered care and health equity. Patient navigators present a valuable use-case on why patient-centered care requires a steady yet renewed focus on helping to improve patient’s understanding of the options available to enhance patients’ decision satisfaction, quality of care, and hopefully improvement in outcomes.

Alexis Eastes is a patient care ambassador at GenesisCare.

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