When the team at the Augusta Center for Cancer & Blood Disorders assessed its goals for 2019, one initiative stood apart as the most important: Expand the cancer navigator program. Navigators are advocates, confidants, educators—and even friends—who accompany cancer patients on their journey from diagnosis to survival. Of new cancer patients at Augusta Health, 93 percent have been offered a navigator, and the Center aims to reach 100 percent by year end.
“The healthcare system is tricky for anybody,” says John Girard, administrative director at the Center. “When you have a cancer diagnosis, you’re often meeting a lot of doctors and healthcare team members. A navigator is your single point of contact to help you make sense of it all. They know you personally, and they help you keep track of multiple appointments.”
Cancer navigators are still an emerging role in many hospitals and cancer centers. “Whenever we talk to navigators from other hospitals, they’re blown away that we have three navigators for such a rural area,” says Angie Shy, RN, navigator at Augusta. Her peers at other hospitals describe their work in terms of spreadsheets—familiar territory for Augusta navigators—but she rarely hears them describe personal relationships like those developed at Augusta.
“There’s a lot of variation among the navigation programs in the U.S.,” Girard says. “We’ve taken a very hands-on, high-touch approach.”
“Navigation is one of the most impactful pieces of cancer care at Augusta,” adds Kelvin Raybon, MD, medical director at the Center. “I can prevent or respond quickly to patient issues, which often are identified by the navigators.”
Shy says that when she meets with other navigators from the Virginia Cancer Patient Navigators Network, they discuss ways to track the impact navigators have on patients. Measures include outcomes like the length of time from diagnosis to treatment and the number of services referred during treatment. There are intangible benefits that navigators provide as well.
One patient Shy worked with had a wife who was also sick and whom he didn’t want to burden with concerns about his own diagnosis. He leaned on Shy for support and a listening ear. For other patients, cancer isn’t their only health challenge; navigators are the liaisons who help put those considerations into practice. “Since we’re all registered nurses, we can evaluate what’s most pertinent for the doctors to know and other things that may not be on a patient’s medical record—such as the patient’s mom has dementia, and they’re taking care of her. We know their treatment goals and what they’re up against in addition to a cancer diagnosis,” Shy says.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has affected many healthcare procedures and appointments, cancer patients often do not have the luxury of delaying care, so the oncology team is taking new precautions to optimize patient safety. One new protocol limits the number of family and friends who can attend appointments. Navigators have been stepping in to take notes or bring a speaker phone in the room, so a patient’s family and friends can still provide support from a safe distance.
“Navigation is kind of the brighter side of having to deal with a cancer diagnosis,” Girard says. No one wants to think about cancer, he adds, “but it’s nice to know that navigators like Shy are here to help patients every step of the way.”
Meet the navigator team and learn more about cancer navigators at augustahealth.com/cancer-center/our-team#navigators.