Who Are Patient Navigators?

Patient navigators can be oncology nurses or trained oncology social workers. They provide individualized assistance to help patients and caregivers. Their goal is to help you and your family navigate the ever-changing health care system.

The navigation process can start during pre-diagnosis. It runs through all phases of the cancer experience.

Patient navigation programs are a relatively new concept. Since 2015, they have been a requirement for accreditation by the American College of Surgeons Commission on Cancer (CoC).

The CoC looks for consistent care coordination. It should address the physical, psychological and social needs of patients. Patient navigators keep close contact with your oncologist and multidisciplinary care team.

Goals of Patient Navigation

  • Enhanced treatment outcomes
  • Increased patient satisfaction
  • Reduced costs of care

Patient navigators help coordinate appointments and keep track of medical records. They also reinforce doctor-patient relationships. They can connect mesothelioma patients with a dietitian, a cancer support group or a mental health counselor.

Navigators also assist with end-of-life care. Examples include palliative procedures or hospice arrangements.

Role and Responsibilities of Patient Navigators

Patient navigators are recognized as an essential part of comprehensive cancer care. They ensure a coordinated and seamless experience for cancer patients and their families.

The responsibilities of a patient navigator may vary based on a specific program’s needs. For example, a patient navigator who works with breast cancer patients may focus more on screenings and treatment. A navigator for patients with terminal cancers such as mesothelioma may deal more with palliative care coordination and emotional support.

The goals of patient navigation remain the same across all roles. They aim to improve clinical outcomes and overall patient experience.

Amy Pelegrin and Jose Ortiz, Patient Advocates at the Mesothelioma Center
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Patient navigators help:

  • Ensure patients receive timely diagnosis, treatment and other cancer care services. This may include creating a survivorship care plan.
  • Assist patients in securing appointments with doctors’ offices, clinics, hospitals, patient-support organizations and other components of the health care system.
  • Make sure comprehensive medical records are available at scheduled appointments.
  • Connect patients, their families and caregivers to resources and support services.
  • Maintain and promote communication between the patient and health care providers. This includes medical oncologists, surgeons, radiation oncologists, pathologists, nursing specialists, dietitians, mental health counselors and palliative care specialists.
  • Arrange language translation and interpretation services.
  • Keep track of paperwork and facilitate financial support.
  • Conduct a psychosocial distress screening, which measures the impact cancer is having on a patient’s overall life.

Patient navigators also advise patients on paying bills, arranging child care and taking sick leave from work. They act as the point person for concerns about every aspect of a patient’s care.

Transportation is an obstacle for many mesothelioma patients because few centers specialize in this treatment. Patients often must travel across state lines or other parts of the country for the best care.

Patient navigators at mesothelioma treatment centers can help families find travel and lodging assistance and funds to cover expenses.

A research study published in 2021 found three major factors contributing to financial hardship. They are the cost of cancer treatment, expanding treatment options and a longer duration for receiving treatment.

The study also noted the changing landscape of health insurance. It has led to patients paying out-of-pocket for a greater portion of their medical care expenditures. Spending on cancer drugs in the United States has grown 64% from 2013 to 2018. It reached $57 billion in 2018. The median price of cancer drugs has remained above $150,000 since 2014.

Many of these newly approved cancer drugs are oral-targeted agents. Patients take these medications until evidence of disease progression. They can result in high patient costs over many months or years.

Difference Between Social Workers and Patient Navigators

Patient navigators can be social workers. Not all social workers are patient navigators.

According to the CoC, patient navigation is “provided by a professional (for example, nurse, social worker) who has documented training to provide individualized assistance to cancer patients, families, and caregivers.” A nonprofessional, or layperson, can be a patient navigator if they receive documented training.

To be accredited by the CoC, cancer centers must have a patient navigation program. Usually, patient navigators work for a particular cancer center or health care network.

Navigators may build partnerships with other agencies and groups depending on the program. However, this is not always the case. Patient navigators are not obligated to work with other cancer centers to connect patients with out-of-network doctors or clinical trials.

Job titles often confused with patient navigator include care coordinator, case manager and patient liaison. While these roles are similar, only licensed patient navigators are trained to the CoC’s standards.

Many local and regional hospitals do not have patient navigators. Hospital social workers can offer similar services but may not have expertise in working with cancer patients.

Mesothelioma specialty cancer centers offer the best chance of working with a patient navigator who is familiar with the treatment options and challenges facing mesothelioma patients.