The Growing Need for Patient Navigators

Zack Worsham

When you or someone you love is in the hospital, simply getting well is enough of a worry. The labyrinth of our healthcare system — managing insurance, scheduling appointments, and figuring out how to get to and from those appointments, etc. — can quickly become an excessive burden for patients and their loved ones. That being the case, there is a growing need for patient navigators to alleviate these burdens so patients can focus on what matters most: getting better.

The first patient navigator program started in 1990 at Harlem Hospital by surgical oncologist Dr. Harold P. Freeman. After treating many women with late-stage breast cancer that could have been caught earlier, Freeman wanted to increase access to screening, diagnosis, treatment, and supportive care for low-income women. Through the launch of the program, patient five-year survival rates at the Harlem Hospital went from 39% to 70% for breast cancer patients.

Since then, through grant funding, patient navigator programs have been established as a part of numerous health systems across the country. Patient navigation and patient advocacy are positive disruptors and are widely becoming staples of modern healthcare. 

Patient navigators have the power to play a significant role in changing healthcare for the better. Whether it’s attending appointments or arranging legal counsel, managing paperwork, or explaining treatment options, patient navigators have the immense task of ensuring that the needs of the patient are met, and are improving health outcomes in what is frequently recognized as a broken healthcare system.

So, what are some potential applications for patient navigators? Consider the following three areas in the growing need for patient navigators:

Addressing Health Disparities

Unfortunately, many demographics in the US don’t have equal access to healthcare, and as a result, ideal health outcomes. Many groups, including those living in poverty, those of racial and ethnic minorities, and other underserved populations, have difficulty accessing and navigating our nation’s healthcare system, and many lack adequate access to primary care.

By facilitating a range of support options, patient navigators have the opportunity to grant better access to primary care and build trust with patients from underserved populations. Patient navigators can help schedule appointments, book transportation, and play a helpful role in patient education. Ultimately, patient navigators can be a big part of creating a more equitable healthcare system overall.

Increasing Clinical Trial Participation

In 2019, it is estimated that there will be 1,762,450 new cancer cases diagnosed and 606,880 cancer deaths in the United States. The fact that 98% of the patient population isn’t aware of available clinical trials, doesn’t know how to apply, or is under too much financial and emotional strain to join a clinical trial is shocking.

For a clinical trial to be successful, participation is key. As liaisons between the patient and the healthcare system, patient navigators have the opportunity to make patients aware of what clinical trials may be available, how they can be beneficial, and how practical they can be for the patient.

Additionally, to achieve the most accurate results, clinical trials require the involvement of people from all cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Since many misconceptions in minority communities may hinder eligible patients from joining a clinical trial, many patient navigators have the unique opportunity to dispel these misconceptions to increase clinical trial enrollment.

Facilitating Elder Care

With 44 million adults in the US caring for an older friend or family member, introducing patient navigation is a potential game-changer. Family caregivers spend an average of 24.4 hours per week providing care, and nearly 1 in 4 caregivers spend 41 hours or more per week providing care. Managing the care of an older loved one is a weighty responsibility, and balancing everything else going on can quickly leave caretakers feeling burned out because of the added stress. Elder care presents a consistently growing need for patient navigators

Patient navigators can advocate for patients on behalf of caretakers when caretakers can’t be present. Navigators can work as a conduit for senior patients, ensuring that they receive appropriate care as they transition from various health facilities back home, and can work as an ally for both patients and caretakers.