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Navigating health care is a huge and overwhelming responsibility for most of us but even more so in underserved communities where many are underinsured. That’s where patient navigators come in. They can help with making doctors’ appointments, getting questions answered and figuring out how to pay for visits, whether or not a patient has insurance.

Patient navigators bridge the gap between the patient and the doctor and encourage patients to follow up with their checkups and screenings, especially when barriers exist to health care. We asked Aissa Oduro, MPH, RN, a senior care coordination specialist for central region patient navigators for ScreenNJ, how the role of a patient navigator can be life-changing when it comes to improving health outcomes and reducing cancer risk.  

New Jersey Family: We hear a lot about patient-centered care but not as much about patient navigation. What exactly is a patient navigator? 

Aissa Oduro: A patient navigator is essentially someone who serves as a guide and helps patients navigate a very complex healthcare system. Patient navigation has been around for a while, but more recently, clinics and medical providers are utilizing patient navigators to help bridge gaps in care for their patients. Patient navigators help make connections to medical appointments and provide assistance with resolving common barriers to care like transportation or lack of insurance.

 

Patient navigation positively impacts health outcomes because patients are provided access to an increased number of resources through their navigator. Barriers to care are also significantly reduced simply by working with a navigator. Navigating the healthcare system alone can be an extremely burdensome and daunting experience. Medical terminology, insurance lingo and follow-up instructions can be very overwhelming and may discourage individuals from following through and completing the screenings they need. Simply put, patient navigation provides a one-stop-shop setting where appointments are coordinated and barriers are resolved, making the process of completing a screening as easy and seamless as possible.  


NJF: We’ve heard the term patient advocate. Is that the same role as a patient navigator and if not, how do they differ? 

AO: I believe that patient advocacy is a way to describe part of the role of the patient navigator. Patient navigators educate, assist, guide and advocate for individuals who may have difficulty advocating for themselves. Patient navigation and patient advocacy go hand in hand.

 

ScreenNJ is a statewide service that provides education about cancer prevention and detection to the community and professionals. ScreenNJ supports NJ residents to obtain cancer screening through navigation and mobile health services regardless of their ability to pay. For more information about ScreenNJ visit screennj.org.

 

NJF: How do community members go about finding a patient navigator?  

Ms. Oduro: Many clinics and Federally Qualified Health Centers employ navigators to assist with a variety of healthcare needs. It is a free service at no cost to the patient. Many insurance companies have patient navigators as well. People who are interested in finding a patient navigator may start by asking their healthcare provider for patient navigation resources. If you have insurance, you can also ask your insurance company for information on this resource or simply complete an internet search for patient navigation services near you.  

 

NJF: Once you find a patient navigator, how does the process work?

AO: The patient navigator will first complete an intake form to collect demographic information, assess the patient’s needs and barriers and determine eligibility for services. Once all of this information has been collected, the navigator will begin coordinating services and scheduling appointments. As the navigator coordinates services, they also educate the patient, discuss potential questions to ask and empower the patient to advocate for their needs. Sometimes navigators will attend appointments with the patient to ensure that everything is clear, and that the patient is an equal participant in their healthcare needs. After the appointment, the navigator will check in with the patient regarding results and will make any additional referrals, as needed. 

 

NJF: Can you share the impact a patient navigator can have on a person’s health outcome, and how their involvement can impact cancer rates?

AO: There have been a few instances in which a patient navigator has worked with a patient who ended up having a significant finding. Without the assistance of a navigator, it is likely these individuals may not have received a timely screening.

We know that early detection ultimately saves lives. When patients receive a diagnosis early, they may then begin treatment early. Navigators will assist every step of the way to ensure that the patient can prioritize receiving treatment without worrying about transportation or other SDOH-related needs.  

 

NJF: What happens if a person is diagnosed with cancer or another condition? How does your team support these individuals?

AO: One of the main reasons we are so dedicated to providing navigation into cancer screenings is so that we may provide the opportunity for early detection. When certain cancers are identified in their early stages, outcomes are significantly improved. We recognize that if someone is screened for cancer, there is a possibility something may be found. We have partnerships in place to ensure that the transition from screening to treatment is seamless.  Many cancer centers have nurse navigators available to assist patients in the treatment and care phase of their journey. 

 

Interested in learning more or getting screened but not sure where to start? Contact ScreenNJ patient navigators for free help scheduling your cancer screening regardless of your income or health insurance status. Email patientnavigation@cinj.rutgers.edu or call (833) 727-3665 or text SCREEN to 43386.

 

NJF: Patient navigators work directly with people who are facing barriers to cancer screenings. What do you see as the biggest barriers to having access to screenings, and how can patient navigators support people to overcome some of these barriers?

AO: Lack of health insurance is one of the top barriers we often see. Many individuals assume that, if they do not have medical insurance, screening is not an option for them. They are unaware of the resources available to them and often are discouraged from completing a screening due to the costs associated with screening procedures. Transportation, immigration status and language are also frequent barriers that patients face. We do not want anyone to miss an appointment due to unreliable transportation or neglect their health care needs due to the fears associated with being undocumented. We do not want patients to miss important information due to an inability to communicate with their provider and/or staff. Many of our patient navigators are bilingual and we also have access to a language line, so that language is no longer a barrier. We assist all individuals, regardless of their insurance status or citizenship status and make health equity a top priority.  

 

NJF: How do you help patients of all backgrounds, regardless of income or insurance status, schedule their screenings, and what processes can be used to teach different communities?

AO: Our focus populations are the uninsured and underinsured. These individuals are often underserved and tend to face more challenges and barriers when it comes to medical care and treatment. We utilize state data and registries to identify areas within NJ with high uninsured rates and high cancer incidence rates. We also conduct ‘in-reach’ within our EHR system to identify individuals who are uninsured and overdue for health maintenance-related screenings. Part of the role of a patient navigator is to maintain a list of relevant and up-to-date resources for patients. We are always building partnerships with various programs and identifying available grants that may be able to help our patients at minimal to no cost.

 

Thinking about screening for yourself or someone you love? Start by talking to your primary care doctor about screening options or contact ScreenNJ, a cancer prevention, screening, and early detection program brought to you by Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey, the NJ Department of Health, and healthcare and community organizations statewide.

 

NJF: How do patient navigators work with community partners to bring information about cancer screenings to communities that are historically medically underserved in New Jersey?

AO: Building and maintaining partnerships with community organizations is another important role of the patient navigator. We are frequently out in the community educating individuals on our services and often collaborating with different organizations at health fairs and other community events to offer a variety of services on the spot. We believe it is very important to meet the community where they are at and it makes so much more of a difference when multiple services are brought to the community all at once. It is an ideal situation when patients can come to a single event and receive resources related to food, housing, insurance while also receiving assistance related to appointment coordination.

We also desire to see continuity of care. We often encounter patients that are in need of cancer screenings; however, they may also have unaddressed issues with hypertension, or diabetes. We really emphasize establishing medical homes with our partnering clinics and FQHC’s so that other healthcare concerns are also satisfied.  We ultimately want to ensure that every individual in New Jersey has the ability to prioritize their healthcare needs, regardless of their zip code or personal circumstances.  

 


Aissa Oduro, MPH, RN, is
the Central NJ Senior Care Coordination Specialist for ScreenNJ’s Patient Navigation Program.

 

Read More:
Everyone in NJ Has Healthcare Options, Even If They’re Uninsured
How Patient-Centered Healthcare Helps You Be Your Own Best Advocate
How Healthy Choices Can Reduce Your Cancer Risk