Nurse Navigators Dispense Guidance, Peace of Mind

If the oncology nurse navigator program at Premier Health had a bumper sticker, it would read, “Guiding patients to peace of mind in their cancer journeys.” For Charlie Watson, a patient with head and neck cancer, a joint effort by nurse navigators Jenny Niekamp, BSN, RN, and Caitlin Sargent, MSN, RN, has helped him find his voice again.

When Watson was diagnosed with oral squamous cell carcinoma (tongue cancer) last summer, the 67-year-old was overwhelmed with thoughts of how his life was about to change. Sargent and Niekamp teamed up to address his concerns. Sarah Jones, MS, APRN, ACNS-BC, AOCNS, VA-BC, nurse manager, Upper Valley Medical Center cancer center, says their teamwork was “exciting to see.”

“It all worked so seamlessly,” she says. “They really understood his special needs and concerns.” Sargent made the initial contact and soon brought in Niekamp, who supported Watson through surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation.

Nurse navigators use their in-depth knowledge of cancer care to guide and support patients throughout diagnosis, treatment, and recovery, working closely with each patient’s cancer care team. They focus on care coordination, patient education, barrier reduction, and connecting patients to community resources. Many navigators hold advanced degrees in nursing and specific certifications for oncology care.

A software tool, OncoNav, lets navigators share information across all Premier Health locations, which is helpful when patients have surgery at one hospital and radiation or chemotherapy at another.

“We continue to streamline our process so regardless of where a patient is, we can support them,” Jones says.

Support For Unique Patient Journeys

Watson’s surgery to remove a portion of his tongue reduced his ability to speak and communicate – a drastic hurdle for anyone, but especially challenging for the gregarious Watson, who loved to sing and joke around. As he struggled to communicate post-surgery, Sargent and Niekamp investigated tools — mainly phone apps — other patients were using to facilitate communication.

They didn’t find the apps very user-friendly. So they kept looking. They landed on an inexpensive, electronic reusable writing pad known as a Boogie Board. Watson’s eyes lit up when Niekamp showed him the board. It was a breakthrough for the social isolation he’d been feeling. It gave him his voice again.

“The communication board gave Charlie that autonomy piece that was taken away from him,” Niekamp says. She was so impressed with the impact such a simple device could create that she requested and received funding from the Good Samaritan Foundation to supply the boards for other patients.

Growth And Outreach

Premier Health has committed to growing the oncology nurse navigator program, expanding it to support all types of cancers. We know how important it is for our patients to connect with a nurse navigator.

Jones also stresses the value of early navigator referral. “Often, patients don’t know what they need or are overwhelmed with having cancer and all of a sudden have a lot to navigate.” The sooner a navigator enters their care journey, the better, she says.

Recently, navigators began reaching out to women with suspected breast cancer — before their biopsies — so if a cancer diagnosis occurs, they’re already connected to a navigator who can help guide them.

The program’s goal is to keep growing so all Premier Health cancer patients can benefit from the peace of mind navigators help provide. Until then, Jones says, “If there’s a patient who doesn’t have a navigator but who could really benefit from one, we’ll find one for them.”

Physicians can make a navigator referral via Premier Health’s Epic system or by emailing a referral form. Patients can call the Premier Health cancer hotline at (844) 316-HOPE (844) 316-HOPE (4673), Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., to connect with a Premier Health oncology navigator.