For cancer patients, the journey from diagnosis and treatment through the “new normal” of survivorship can seem overwhelming. Along the way, they must learn to understand their diagnosis and treatment options, coordinate visits with multiple specialists, find out how and where to access supportive resources in the community, as well as make critical decisions impacting their care and quality of life—all while coping with the symptoms and side effects of their cancer and treatment regimen.
However, patients at the Mercy Health Cancer Centers never have to face this journey alone.
According to Melissa Rinker, CTR, Manager of Ancillary Services for Mercy Health Oncology, “To help guide and support cancer patients through treatment and beyond, Mercy Health developed a very robust, comprehensive nurse navigator program that is unique in Northwest Ohio. The program was launched about five years ago specifically for breast cancer patients because treatment for that diagnosis must be multidisciplinary and has a lot of ‘moving parts’ that can be very challenging for patients to navigate alone. That original program was so successful that in 2017 we decided to apply the concept to all newly diagnosed cancers. So today we have a team of five oncology nurses who actively navigate our cancer patients.”
Rinker further explains that when a patient comes in for diagnostic testing—typically a biopsy—and is determined to have cancer, a nurse navigator gets on board soon thereafter and makes contact with both the patient and the ordering physician to determine what information, appointments, further testing, or other services and resources the patient may need. “We can also begin to assess less-obvious needs as well as barriers to care,” she says. “For example, a patient may need a particular treatment but may lack transportation to access it. In that case, we can connect the patient with a social worker to help eliminate that barrier. Or, if we observe that a patient newly diagnosed with cancer has lost 20 pounds, we know to get a dietitian involved right away.”
Kelly Martinez, RN, a member of Mercy Health’s nurse navigator team, emphasizes the importance of prior oncology nursing experience in the role she and the other navigators play in patients’ care journey. In fact, she notes that the navigator team has well over 100 years of combined oncology experience. “A nurse navigator is someone who helps manage symptoms and side effects, answers questions about test results, serves as a liaison with the multidisciplinary care team to ensure everyone is on the same page, and stays with the patient all the way into survivorship. That individual really needs to be an experienced nurse.”
Martinez also points out that in addition to general oncology experience, each member of the nurse navigator team has a specialized background that can be very helpful in guiding patients through treatment. “I have a background in radiation, so if a patient is scheduled to undergo radiation and is nervous about it, I can tell him or her exactly what the treatment will entail and what to expect to help alleviate that anxiety,” she says.
By virtue of their extensive experience in the oncology field, the navigators have developed strong relationships with area organizations that offer vital support services and resources to cancer patients and their families, such as Nightingale’s Harvest, Ovarian Cancer Connection, and the Dental Health Center of Northwest Ohio. Furthermore, the navigators can significantly enhance the coordination of patient care at other facilities. “For instance, if a patient needs to go to the Ohio State University, the University of Michigan, Henry Ford Hospital, or another institution for treatment, a second opinion, or a clinical trial, I can contact my counterpart in that office to get him or her in for an appointment quickly,” Martinez states.
While it can be difficult to quantify the benefits patients receive when a nurse navigator is advocating on their behalf, Rinker points out that Mercy Health oncologists have noticed a difference. “The doctors have observed that giving patients the right information at the right time helps manage their expectations while reducing anxiety and complications. As a result, their symptoms and visits are better managed,” she says.
“Plus,” states Martinez, “we can make sure important things don’t fall through the cracks. If a patient misses an office visit or test, we can call to find out what happened and help address any barriers that might have prevented them from keeping the appointment. We’re basically a friend in the office who is advocating for patients all the time.”❦