Do patient navigators really help? Depends on who you ask

Although many providers incorporate patient navigators into  cancer programs to boost patient outcomes and coordinate care, it's unclear whether these individuals actually help patients or save money, according to The Washington Post.

"I think for a lot of patients, maybe even the majority of patients with cancer, navigation may not have that big an impact on the kind of care they get," Scott Ramsey, a professor of public health sciences at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, told the Post.

A recent University of Alabama at Birmingham study, which assigned 42 navigators to help more than 6,700 cancer patients in five southeastern states, found that costs, hospitalizations, emergency room visits and admissions to intensive care decreased more sharply for patients assisted by navigators. But researchers couldn't pinpoint patient navigation as the primary reason for the drops.

The biggest exception is for poor patients who don't typically receive sufficient medical care. Underserved patients receive clear benefits when patient navigators help them with their cancer care, according to the National Cancer Institute's nine-site study of patient navigation, the Post reported.

But still patient navigator programs continue to grow as older Americans experience more chronic medical problems in an increasingly complex healthcare system. In fact, the American College of Surgeons now requires that cancer centers seeking accreditation have navigators, the Grand Forks Herald reported.

And even if research hasn't so far proved their worth, supports of patient navigators still believe they help save money, ensure patients follow treatment regimens and help detect problems earlier. Some pilot programs have even found that patient navigators have helped reduce readmissions and the overuse of emergency rooms.

"I think it's a matter of how you want to define value," Lillie Shockney, who runs a team of four nurse navigators at the Johns Hopkins Breast Center in Maryland, told the Post. "We can make sure we're giving this patient the best opportunity of survival with quality of life. What's the value of that? To the patient, it's huge."

To learn more:
- read The Washington Post article
- see the Grand Forks Herald article
- here's the study announcement