The diagnosis is finally delivered—cancer. The emotions, questions, and fear can be overwhelming to newly diagnosed cancer patients and their loved ones. For a disease so commonly discussed, the long journey ahead appears unknown. In 2022 alone, according to the National Cancer Institute, “roughly 1.9 million people will be diagnosed with cancer in the United States.” Often, newly diagnosed cancer patients get thrown into the reality of their diagnosis, possible treatment options, names of recommended doctors and clinics - the list of resources goes on. All of this occurs without a clear path forward. Patients and their families are left to navigate the complexities of the healthcare system alone while preparing to emotionally and physically battle their disease. Although the mortality rate for cancer has continued to decrease, there are still significant disparities and limitations in access to care for certain subgroups—including race and socioeconomic status.
Barriers to Care
Battling cancer can become even more complicated for patients faced with certain barriers to streamlined care. These barriers can include but are not limited to patients who are located in rural or underserved areas, patients who are low-income, patients who don’t have access to insurance or a way to pay for their treatment or patients with complex diagnoses that require multiple specialists or facilities, and perhaps may not be able to get reliable transportation to their treatments.
Accessibility to potential treatment paths is also limited when patients are not educated by clinical professionals. Clinical trials, research studies that test new treatments or interventions that determine safety and effectiveness to treat cancer, can provide patients with access to new or experimental treatment methods that would not otherwise be available to them. The research and enrollment process, though, can be complicated.
Enrollment into clinical trials has barriers of its own. In fact, only 3-5% of cancer patients in the United States participate in a cancer clinical trial, and disparities for this include age, race, and gender.
Even though clinical trial participation can produce life-saving research for scientists and future cancer patients, far too many have little to no guidance through the enrollment process.
How Do We Solve This Disparity?
These barriers prevent patients from achieving the best possible outcomes from their cancer treatment. Both the U.S. health system and cancer patients benefit when care, education, and support are readily available and effective treatment can be streamlined.
Enter: Cancer Navigation as a strategy to create optimal care plans and outcomes for cancer patients.
What is Cancer Navigation—and How Do Patients Benefit?
Cancer Navigation programs, first implemented in the 1990s, provide patient education and practical support for helping patients overcome barriers to care, including educating and assisting in enrolling cancer patients into clinical trials.
These support programs, services, and resources are provided by healthcare professionals called Cancer Navigators. Cancer Navigators may be nurses, social workers, or other healthcare professionals who have specialized training in cancer care. They can also work in a variety of settings, including hospitals, cancer centers, and private practices.
The most common services provided by Cancer Navigators include:
- Coordinating Care: Streamlining care along the care continuum, including making referrals and contact for appointments, tests, and procedures on a patient’s behalf.
- Improving Communication Between Patients and Healthcare Providers: Creating efficient communication between patients and their specialists and facilities to ensure that no aspect of their care journey falls through the cracks.
The American Cancer Society said that “studies reported favorable outcomes for [Cancer Navigation] programs, including increased uptake of and adherence to cancer screenings, timely diagnostic resolution and follow-up, higher completion rates for cancer therapy, and higher rates of attending medical appointments.”
- Providing Education: Educating patients and their families about their cancer diagnosis, treatment options, and possible side effects.
- Assisting with Financial and Insurance Issues: Helping patients understand their insurance coverage and find financial assistance programs to help cover the cost of treatment. They can also assist with practical financial needs, such as reliable transportation to treatment or temporary housing.
- Providing Emotional Support: Helping families and patients cope with the stress and anxiety that can come with a cancer diagnosis.
- Assisting in Enrollment in Clinical Trials: Educating patients about clinical trial options that may be appropriate for their specific type and stage of cancer. They can help weigh risks and benefits and walk them through the process of enrolling in a clinical trial.
How Does Cancer Navigation Bring Value to Our Health System?
While the Cancer Navigator is a lifeline for patients and their families, they are also an essential asset to the healthcare ecosystem.
Their emphasis on coordinated care and patient advocacy benefits the health system in many ways, including:
- Improved Patient Outcomes: Cancer Navigators ensure patients and their families holistically understand their diagnosis and treatment options, which leads to informed decision-making and improved health outcomes.
- Increased Patient Satisfaction: Patient satisfaction scores improve when patients are supported throughout their entire health journey. Cancer Navigators help to lead patients down the right care path for them and advocate for their needs or desires.
- Reduced Costs: Money is saved when patient care is more efficient. Cancer Navigators ensure that their patients move through their health journey as effectively as possible, and can help to reduce unnecessary testing and readmissions - saving hospitals money.
- Greater Efficiency: The role of the Cancer Navigator is to make sure that cancer patients receive the support they need to efficiently and effectively treat their cancer. Their coordination and knowledge of resources help patients to get the treatment that they need to produce the best outcome - faster.
Cancer Navigation programs save money for their facility while creating the best possible outcomes for cancer patients. By investing in these resources and healthcare professional roles, patients and health systems alike can benefit while working to dispel the disparities in receiving essential care.