The Role of the Nurse Navigator in Oncology

When a patient is diagnosed with cancer, he or she can become overwhelmed. Undergoing various treatments and dealing with healthcare professionals can be a lot to handle.

When a patient is diagnosed with cancer he or she can become overwhelmed. Undergoing various treatments and dealing with healthcare professionals from different specialties like radiologists, pharmacists, and oncologists can be a lot to handle. Because of this, a new nursing sub-specialty has developed—the nurse navigator. A nurse navigator will offer medical guidance, act as a support group, and “walk patients and their families through the cancer treatment process.” Navigators who work with cancer patients already have nursing experience, but take navigation-specific classes to become fully qualified. “In the cancer care world, oncology nurses have been performing many navigator functions for a long time,” said Gayle Wilkins, coordinator of the Prostate Cancer Resources Center at Harris Methodist Fort Worth Hospital. Although navigators are new to the healthcare industry, programs have been started in hospitals across the United States.

The roles of a nurse navigator include:

• Planning and educating patients and families about their individual cancer diagnosis and treatment options

• Supporting and navigating each patient through treatment by reinforcing education and coordinating information and care with a team of physicians and allied healthcare professionals

• Participating in weekly cancer conferences with physicians, genetic counselors, and nurses to discuss and determine the best treatment plan for each newly diagnosed patient with cancer

• Facilitating support groups and programs and referring patients to appropriate cancer support programs and resources in their communities

• Teaching about cancer prevention, screening guidelines, diagnosis, treatment options, and the importance of early detection

Sherree Bennett, nurse navigator for the Joan Katz Breast Center, states that “Some patients will only call for help once or twice, and some will call their navigator repeatedly for months looking for input.” This is why navigators are becoming so popular, especially those who are cancer survivors themselves, because they provide additional support.

There are concerns about nurse navigators because their services do not bring in any money for the hospitals they are associated with, which does not offer any security to keep the programs afloat. Currently, there are not many nurse navigators, but Wilkin believes that “as patient demand increases and healthcare professionals realize what a reassuring role navigators can play, their numbers will probably increase.”

Do you think nurse navigators truly help cancer patients and families? Have you ever considered taking the necessary steps to become a qualified navigator? How will the role of the navigator evolve, should it remain part of the healthcare system?