Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Nurses Can Navigate Through the Health Care Maze

I recently read about a new hospital position that has “RN” written all over it.

It’s called “patient navigator,” and as some of my nurse friends pointed out, we’ve been doing this job informally for a long time for our patients, our family and friends.

A patient navigator is one who helps guide patients through “difficult medical journeys.” Navigators aren’t always nurses, but in most cases they are, and hospitals are hiring them at ever increasing rates.

Navigators are called in when someone receives a diagnosis of any illness that is going to require multiple doctor and/or hospital visits for some months to come, and probably requires one or more specialists. This is often the case for a cancer diagnosis, and typically, most people are overwhelmed when they learn they have it. Once they gain their bearings, they often have many questions.

At a time when clarity and focus are most needed, patients must deal with multiple emotions, concerns and the unknown. They might ask: “What treatments are available? What are the side effects? How effective is the treatment? Will my insurance cover my care? Can I still work? Will I lose my job with an extended absence? Who will take care of the children while I’m receiving treatment?”

Maybe the most important part of the navigator job is acting as patient advocate. Nurses know what questions to ask, whom to ask and how to get what patients need.

According to the story in my local newspaper, the National Cancer institute has more than 200 programs that offer navigators, and the American Cancer Society has more than 100 programs with navigators. In some hospitals, clinical care coordinators often perform navigator duties, and in other hospitals, the duties of transition specialists parallel those of a navigator.

A friend of mine told me recently that she hired an independent nurse to help expedite the solution to a health-care access problem she’d been dealing with for months. She said the nurse resolved the problem within a week and it was more than worth the money.

Some nurses become navigators simply on the strength of their experience and know-how; others earn masters degrees in patient advocacy. Like any evolving specialty, there is much discussion as to what the standards and training should be. One list of various programs can be found at http://healthadvocateprograms.com/masterlist.htm

Do you think using patient navigators is a good idea?

Have you ever acted as a navigator, formally or informally?

Have you ever referred patients to a navigator? What were the results?

Tell us what you think.

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