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Guides To Help Patients Navigate Health System

Armen Hareyan's picture

Patients who learn they have an abnormal screening test for cancer often are overwhelmed and confused.

They may wonder about the best treatment, how their lives might change and worry about paying the bills.

Such confusion can be detrimental to the health and well-being of cancer patients, says Electra Paskett, associate director for population sciences of the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Paskett is coordinating a clinical trial in Columbus to study whether specially trained "navigators" can help patients negotiate the health system and, ultimately, reduce cancer deaths and improve quality of life.

"We want to learn if a patient navigator service will help patients obtain treatment faster following an abnormal result," Paskett says. "From diagnosis to treatment, a lot of patients can get lost in the system because of missed communication between patient and provider."

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The American Cancer Society is funding the four-year, $1.4 million study at Ohio State, which will involve 1,200 patients. Patient enrollment began earlier this year. The National Cancer Institute also has funded eight other cancer centers nationwide to participate in the same study as part of its Patient Navigation Research Program.

The Ohio State study will include patients from 12 Columbus clinics who have abnormal screening tests for breast, cervical or colon cancer. The clinics include eight OSU Primary Care Network sites and four Columbus Neighborhood Health Centers.

Three people have been hired and trained as navigators to help patients in six of the clinics, while patients in the remaining six clinics will receive clinical care plus written materials, Paskett said. The navigators will provide a variety of services, such as helping patients arrange transportation to medical appointments and paying bills, she said.

In addition, the guides can help patients better understand their diagnosis.

"They can help make sure the abnormalities are treated as soon as possible, when there's the best chance for a cure with the least medical intervention," Paskett says. "It's very helpful to have somebody you can turn to who can help you learn where to go, what to do and what to expect."

The first patient navigator program, started in Harlem, N.Y., more than 15 years ago, has been credited with increasing the survival rates among African-American breast cancer patients there.