Guiding light: Patient navigators illuminate path to the ideal patient experience

June 6, 2017  //  FOUND IN: Our Employees,

Jakima Jones has benefited from a patient navigator during her treatment at the U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center.

When Frances Porter came to the U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center for throat cancer, she was already weak from treatment received in her hometown of Saginaw. How would she get — in her wheelchair — from her appointments in the Cancer Center to the radiation oncology clinic on the days her daughter was unable to come with her?

Likewise, Jakima Jones travels by herself from Kalamazoo to Ann Arbor each week for treatment for multiple myeloma. She wasn’t feeling well to begin with and the details of infusion appointments and prescriptions she needed filled became overwhelming. Who could keep track of all that?

These types of issues impact cancer patients everywhere, which is why the Cancer Center formed its patient navigator program. Its purpose is to add a layer of support and enhance the patient care experience by assigning a dedicated person to help each patient throughout the treatment process.

“Patient navigators can offer support to patients in many different ways depending on the needs of the patient,” said Jill Paladino, manager of the patient navigator program. “Whether it’s answering questions, helping keep track of appointments or needing directions around the health system, the idea is to have a point-person at the ready for any need that arises.”

Porter met her navigator, Carolyn Graham, at her second appointment when she needed to speak to a dietitian about how to get proper nutrition during a time when swallowing was difficult. Graham wheeled her to the right place and the bond was formed.

“Carolyn always checks in with me when I come to an appointment,” Porter said. “She tracks me down in the waiting room and asks what I need. If my daughter isn’t with me, she can push me in the wheelchair. She is great company and always wants to know how I’m doing.”

Patient navigators have been shown to be valued members of the health care team. Always in touch with a patient’s needs and personal goals, they help advocate and ease the stress during a time when clinical team members are focused on the immediate health needs of the patient.

Jones described herself looking and feeling like Godzilla during her first visits to the Cancer Center. The treatment she’d tried in Kalamazoo left her with mouth sores and swollen eyes. But she remembered a turning point — the day her patient navigator, Paladino, listened to her worries and brought a spiritual counselor to meet with her.

“It was a day I really needed it,” Jones said. “Jill came with open arms and took me in like I was family. She’ll check in with me. Anything I need, she is right there.”

Jones also took her advice to begin taking notes to remember details of her diagnosis, appointment times and important information. She now relies on her notebook and laughs about the post-it notes around her house.

The plan is to test and learn from the program’s successes and eventually expand to have navigators available to all patients. Patient navigators are a component of the Oncology Care Model, a governmental push to ensure quality and coordinated care for cancer patients.

“It will vary from clinic to clinic, but each patient will guide the relationship based on needs. We’ll be with them right at the start,” Paladino said.

For more stories like this one, check out the Cancer Center’s latest issue of Thrive