Independently navigating the healthcare system can be a challenge some days without a breast cancer diagnosis. When you are trying to balance the information and emotions that accompany a breast cancer diagnosis, the process can seem like an impossible feat. It’s normal to feel out of control and overwhelmed after receiving such a diagnosis. However, this does not mean you are powerless to take back control of your life. A nurse or patient navigator can help you through this stage.

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Patient/nurse navigators are often extremely valuable members of a woman’s breast cancer team. They guide women through the cancer care system and help them get the treatment they need. Navigators ensure that the women they work with receive confidential and respectful care throughout their diagnosis, treatment, and aftercare. Additionally, they help women with breast cancer overcome barriers, such as communication, transportation, and financial hardships. Without these patient navigators, such barriers may otherwise limit their access to high-quality healthcare. Although patient navigation is a fairly new field within the healthcare system, more and more hospitals are creating navigator positions to ensure their patients receive the best care.

Who Are Patient and Nurse Navigators?

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Patient navigators come from a wide range of backgrounds. Some navigators have experience in finance, law, or administration while others are simply individuals with a passion for supporting people during a challenging time. The term “patient navigator” is normally used as an umbrella term. It refers to all types of healthcare navigators, whether they have clinical knowledge or not. However, it is also commonly used to refer to navigators who do not possess any clinical knowledge. Meanwhile, the term “nurse navigator” is reserved specifically for those individuals who, as clinical nurses, also possess a clinical understanding of the healthcare system and of cancer care. For this article, we will refer to both patient and nurse navigators as “patient navigators.”

Most patient navigators work through either a hospital, insurance company, or community group. Some navigators work as volunteers with such organizations, while hospitals hold other navigators on staff as a support to patients. Patients may also hire navigators directly as independent consultants.

Are Patient Navigators Trained?

Currently there is no nationally recognized credential or license for patient navigators. However, there are several organizations that maintain ethical standards for their members, including the National Association of Healthcare Advocacy Consultants (NAHAC). Additionally, the American Cancer Society maintains a Patient Navigator Program that offers training to individuals in the profession in collaboration with some local hospitals. The NAHAC is also working towards developing a nationally-recognized credential for patient navigation.

Although patient navigators may not have formal or nationally-recognized training, many of them rely on their own personal experiences and background. Some navigators decide to enter into the profession following their own experience with the complicated cancer-care system, and they use this experience to help the women they work with. They often have a deeper understanding of how draining the system can be and may offer new perspectives.

Meanwhile, navigators with a background in administration, finance, or other related areas rely on their previous training and experience in those areas. Nurse navigators also have their own separate training in medicine to assist them.

What Does a Patient Navigators Do?

Navigators assist patients and their families with the wide array of needs that are associated with the healthcare system. When the position was first created, navigators focused solely on helping patients with all types of health problems find their way around barriers that were keeping them from getting medical care. These barriers included low literacy, lack of health insurance, and poverty. While this is still a focus for patient navigators, their work has expanded to helping cancer patients get through their diagnosis and treatment.

Nurse navigators specifically are more involved in coordinating cancer care for patients because of their medical background. They help patients find and meet with surgical and radiation oncologists and assist them with finding social workers, education and support services, and financial assistance during the duration of their cancer journey. Beyond that, nurse navigators often help patients communicate with other members of their cancer care team and manage any paperwork that may be required.

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Despite the larger role nurse navigators play in the cancer care process, non-clinical patient navigators are still extremely beneficial. Some women may find that working through the healthcare system is less challenging than finding the money for their medical bills or finding the support they need. Patient navigators focus more on the support aspects of cancer care and handle everything from helping women balance their scheduling and finding financial help for medical bills to finding psychosocial and community support.

How Can I Find a Patient Navigator?

If you feel you could benefit from the help of a patient navigator as you go through the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer, ask your physician or local hospital if any patient navigators are on staff. If there is not a current program at your hospital, your doctor may be aware of local organizations or cancer centers that might have patient navigators available.

In addition, you can check the various resources at such organizations as the American Cancer Society (ACS), Association of Oncology Social Workers (AOSW), and Association of Community Cancer Centers (ACCC). These organizations all maintain an interest in the navigation profession and offer several resources to patients seeking navigation and general health care assistance. The NAHAC also maintains a member directory of patient navigators. You can search through the directory by area and see what navigators may be available to your region.