October 31, 2019
“What is a nurse navigator?” This is the question I often hear when I tell people that I work as a nurse navigator for The University of Kansas Cancer Center.
When we started the nurse navigation program in 2011, I asked the same question. To find an answer, I researched cancer centers across the country and read every article I could about nurse navigation. What I learned is, if you've seen one nurse navigation program, you've seen one nurse navigation program. No 2 are exactly the same.
The most agreed upon definition of nurse navigation is that we "address barriers to care for cancer patients."
In the beginning
Nurse navigation began in the early 1990s when Dr. Harold Freeman, a breast surgeon in Harlem, New York, noticed that patients with abnormal mammograms were not returning for biopsies or other necessary appointments. These patients were falling through the cracks. Dr. Freeman hired a social worker to contact and follow up with the patients. The social worker discovered the patients weren't making their appointments because they had no transportation or childcare. The social worker, or lay navigator, partnered with the patients to make sure they came to their required appointments. The end result of this hands-on approach was that these breast cancer patients experienced better outcomes. They received the lifesaving treatment they needed, faster.
How we work today
The University of Kansas Cancer Center's nurse navigation program pairs each physician with a nurse coordinator who ensures that patient treatment is managed and timely. This nurse is a contact for the patient to guide them through treatment side effects and other issues that may arise.
Nurse navigators at our cancer center cross multiple care settings and focus on connecting the patients to their treatment teams. We work to provide the information necessary to enable treatment to begin in a timely way. We work with physicians and specialties to close the gap between these different teams. Our mission is to provide a path to efficient, personalized and compassionate cancer care.
Our nurse navigation program has disease-site-specific nurses who are experts in their fields. We connect these nurses with patients from the time of referral to our cancer center. They work with provider teams to ensure each patient is scheduled with the appropriate physician(s) and has all the necessary testing and medical information required so the physicians can make treatment recommendations.
Much like the first patient navigator in Harlem, we identify barriers to care. Once identified, we connect patients to appropriate support services teams to help resolve those barriers.
However, the most important thing we do is provide education and emotional support through a very scary time in a patient's life. We are the brightly lit path for the patient and their family to personalized and compassionate cancer care.