Article Archive
May/June 2024

May/June 2024 Issue

The Last Word: Patient Navigators: Unsung Heroes of Health Care
By Josh Marsh
Today’s Geriatric Medicine
Vol. 17 No. 3 P. 34

When you hear the term “health care hero,” you may think of nurses, doctors and other medical professionals on the frontline treating patients. But there are many health care heroes who operate behind the scenes and aren’t always immediately recognized for the invaluable work they do to help patients every day. Patient navigators play a unique and key role in the health care system by guiding patients through the treatment process for complex and chronic illnesses, helping them obtain access to care and building relationships with their families and caregivers. Ultimately, patient navigators are involved throughout the entire treatment journey to guide patients, their loved ones, and their caregivers through what can be some of the most difficult moments of their lives.

Helping Patients Gain Access to Specialty Medications
For members of older patient populations who may require more comprehensive care, the role of patient navigators in accessing specialty medications is particularly crucial. Because of the high cost of therapies for conditions like cancer, which often require ongoing treatment, many insurance companies have complicated qualification paperwork, insurance processes, or other barriers to accessing those prescriptions. This can leave patients without the life-saving medication they need for long periods of time. In these urgent, yet common, situations, patient navigators can help enroll patients in financial support programs for medications, investigate their benefits to verify coverage for therapies and, at times, even research treatment centers compatible with a patient’s insurance so they can receive those therapies.

Assisting Patients Through Transitions to Care
Care transitions are common for patients undergoing treatment for cancer or other long-term illnesses. These may involve the physical locations where patients receive treatment but can also refer to where patients live throughout their health care journeys. Patient navigators understand the full scope of a patient’s needs and play an important role in helping them through these transitions of care. For example, older patients experiencing the transition from home to a hospital or assisted living facility need help to ensure their new primary residence is fully equipped to handle their medical needs, especially if those needs include administering specialty medications or around-the-clock care. Patient navigators consider every detail of a patient’s treatment plan to help make the care transition as smooth as possible, while also anticipating potential barriers to care and guiding patients and their loved ones through any unexpected hurdles.

Establishing Trusting Relationships and Open Communication
One of the most important aspects of the patient navigator role is building a relationship with a patient’s family and caregivers to create rapport and trust, and to establish open communication with a patient’s support system. Just as patient navigators assist patients throughout their health care journeys, they assist and support their families and caregivers as well. At their core, patient navigators are empathetic and compassionate communicators who help build a sense of stability for patients and their loved ones, so they can focus on their treatment journey rather than the complexities of the health care system.

“The patients I work with are going through a very challenging diagnosis, and it’s changing their world forever,” says Lisa Buckley, a patient navigator at Cardinal Health Sonexus Access and Patient Support. “The best part of my role is providing support, encouragement, and assistance in any way I can. Patients and their families really do appreciate someone reaching out to follow up on an infusion appointment or to ask how they’re doing and how I can help.”

As the number of older patients seeking care rises, specialized health care professionals like patient navigators will continue to play a critical role in guiding patients through some of the most challenging times in their lives. By collaborating with multiple stakeholders throughout the health care system, patient navigators are an invaluable asset to patients, helping them achieve better health outcomes by overcoming barriers to life-saving care.

— Josh Marsh is vice president and general manager of Cardinal Health Sonexus Access and Patient Support.