Patient navigators bring empathy, accessible education to clinical care

Like every high-profile industry, healthcare comes with its own set of jargon and buzzwords. Some, like "electronic health records" and "meaningful use," might strike fear into the hearts of under-prepared clinicians, while others, like "sustainable growth rates" and "shared savings," have had providers scrambling to sustain their revenue streams. In many cases, these phrases are convenient ways of quickly compressing a much larger issue into a digestible soundbite. But what happens when providers lose sight of what these terms imply when it comes to improving quality of care?

That has been the challenge facing the "patient perspective." As the focus of treatments has shifted from the doctor as the primary agent to the patient as an equally active member of the stakeholder team, many providers have struggled to formulate comprehensive policies that embody what the patient perspective truly is. From education to engagement strategies, the industry may not be as advanced in catering to their customers as people instead of patients. 

However, instead of forcing traditional clinicians into roles they may not be comfortable with or perform well in, Oncology Nurse Advisors pointed out a growing trend within the cancer treatment community. Instead of large stakeholder teams designed around a single patient, ONA explained that patient navigators, professionals trained in the art of liaising between clinically experienced physicians and naive patients, are beginning to embody the tenets of the patient perspective in healthcare.

What can providers do to give patients all the assistance they need?What can providers do to give patients all the assistance they need?

A learning curve
Every patient absorbs health education materials differently, but it is the responsibility of clinicians to ensure that each individual is equipped with enough knowledge to facilitate the proper treatment of their conditions - or at least not hinder their recovery progress. However, as Deb Emerson, a 50-year-old retired California high school teacher, told PBS, even people with what would be considered a normal level of non-medical education have a difficult time processing and comprehending healthcare materials. When she received an instructional pamphlet after purchasing insurance through her state exchange in 2014, Emerson told the source that she could not make heads or tails of it.

"I have an education and I am not understanding this," Emerson said. "I wonder about people who do not have an education - how baffling this must be for them."

Brendan Saloner, Ph.D., health policy researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, told PBS that information without context is unlikely to have any effect on patients that cannot place their conditions within a larger conversation. If an individual is told to lower his or her cholesterol without being told the risks of failing to follow the treatment plan, then patient education functions as little more than discharge instructions from a physician.

"Giving somebody an insurance card and not really telling them what that insurance is going to do for them is not going to produce the health outcomes that we all want to see," Saloner said. "If the goal is to improve health and lower costs … it is really important to equip consumers with the education they need."

Personal healthcare concierge
It is sometimes too easy for healthcare officials to sit back and call for updated educational solutions. While healthcare marketing and creative advertising solutions can help patients connect with their conditions on a significant and rewarding level, Oncology Nurse Advisor explained that improving patient engagement might require a boots-on-the-ground approach.

"Patient navigators are seen as particularly important when treating cancer patients."

Enter the patient navigator, a patient-centric professional skilled at acting as a go-between for patients and their physicians. The Dana-Farber Cancer Institute employs navigators in their gynecological, breast and colorectal cancer departments to help patients not just understand what their physicians are telling them, but also to equip them with the necessary knowledge of their conditions to ensure quick and full recoveries.

Another key element of the patient navigator role is the emphasis on bi- or multi-lingual professionals. Because healthcare education can be difficult for even native English speakers, the ability to phrase things in patients' first languages significantly improves their ability to convey crucial information.

Patient navigators are seen as particularly important when treating cancer patients, as the long and difficult intervention process can easily go wrong if patients do not follow instructions or maintain positive outlooks. In fact, a 2011 study from researchers at the University of Kansas Cancer Center found that they may help accelerate the start of treatment plans, ostensibly intervening before metastasis occurs.

The researchers gather 322 women who were diagnosed with breast cancer between 1997 and 2003. Of this group, 157 were assigned patient navigators, who began working to help patients understand how best to treat their conditions. The remaining women did not receive any such intervention.

The researchers found that intervention with a patient navigator reduced the average time to initial treatments from an average of 37.5 days in the control group to just 9 in the experimental section. After selecting out factors influenced by race, financial stability and clinical presentation, the researchers discovered that patient navigators were the true cause of this reduction in treatment commencement durations.

Providers need to embrace the patient navigator approach in their marketing solutions.Providers need to embrace the patient navigator approach in their marketing solutions.

Embrace the patient navigator spirit
While navigators may play a crucial role in the future of healthcare reform, it is important to note that no single intervention will improve health literacy, engagement or satisfaction levels enough to produce widespread results across the industry. 

However, if providers can embrace the techniques of patient navigators - empathetic connections, information framed in culturally accessible ways and the simplification of healthcare jargon - then this kind of outcome could be achieved. Just as navigators are front-line embodiments of the patient perspective movement, providers should also funnel these lessons into the healthcare marketing solutions used to educate each patient they treat. This may not be as easy as rephrasing pamphlets and translating brochures, though - an experienced advertising agency can distil even the most technical language into accessible physical and digital materials.

After all, if embracing the patient perspective means meeting non-medically trained individuals on their own terms, then providers need all the healthcare marketing solutions offered by savvy advertising agencies to achieve it.