Online RN to MSN
Clinical Systems Leadership

The Changing Role of a Patient Navigator

Once you have completed your online Master of Science in Nursing program at the University of Arizona, you will be equipped with the tools, education and experience to take the lead on clinical systems and pursue your career in the field of nursing. Each day there are new and advancing opportunities to design and implement innovative patient care systems. One such exciting career path is a role in patient navigation. A relatively new concept, this position was created with the intention of guiding cancer patients and their loved ones through the complex healthcare system.

Patient navigators help to guide patients through the complicated healthcare system.

What is patient navigation?

For patients dealing with chronic illness such as cancer, diabetes or heart disease, attempting to navigate the daunting systems of doctors, insurance systems, clinics, hospitals and treatment options is a lot. Previously, these patients and family members were left to face the system alone, with little guidance from health care professionals. Now, a patient navigator works together with the patients and their care team to organize, officiate, dictate, plan, connect and jump over the various hurdles of their patient care.

Care coordination is a large piece of this job as these navigators help patients to understand the system and receive care in a timely fashion. Oftentimes patient navigators assist in ethical and legal healthcare issues and complications that arise with insurance. Connecting them with various resources and patient support groups, those in this position are helping individuals navigate not just the logistical side of healthcare, but the mental and emotional as well.

Patient navigators in the field

Patient navigator positions are found in public health organizations, hospitals, clinics and major health department agencies such as the American Cancer Society. It’s important to note that the role of patient navigator can often go by a different title. Some of the common job titles are: community outreach worker, patient advocate, community health worker or screening outreach worker.

In the world of cancer care, oncology nurses are some of the many people adapting to patient navigation to help guide patients through each stage of cancer care, from screening and diagnosis all the way through treatment and recovery, according to the National Cancer Institute. These navigators play a crucial role in helping people gain access to care, explained Dr. Steven Patierno, deputy director of the Duke Cancer Institute and a leader in the field. This role is especially important as a patient is deciding which treatment options to choose and these nurses are already well versed in the various choices. Known as oncology nurse navigators, these registered nurses with oncology-specific clinical knowledge are able to help patients at a critical time.

Today, there are many facilities and hospitals that can offer specialized patient navigation, according to the NCI. Some patient navigators provide programs specifically addressing a distinct form of cancer, while others help guide patients to and through survivorship. During these difficult times, having a patient navigator gives the patient the opportunity to call each time there is a question or concern and receive an immediate answer.

An evolving role

Originally, the role of patient navigator was designed to help the underserved battle the disparities in health care and navigate the complex healthcare system, according to the Journal of Clinical Pathways. Oftentimes patients in this population were traveling far distances to receive care and still facing healthcare-related obstacles upon arriving. In the late 1980s, a surgeon in Harlem, New York City, Dr. Harold Freeman, saw a gap that needed to be filled. He saw that African American women with breast cancer were not gaining access to the care that would have been potentially life-saving. It was then that he developed the concept of patient navigation.

Initially, the patient navigators were lay people from the community who were aware of language and cultural barriers to health care. By using navigators to eliminate these obstacles, however, patients were able to the better understand and receive diagnosis and treatment of early-stage disease.

Within a decade of patient navigation however, it was discovered that it was not just minority groups and low-income populations facing these disparities. It was found that the same experience was true for Americans across various socioeconomic levels. As such, the role of patient navigator has continued to grow and evolve to meet the multifarious needs of patients and their families.

Patient navigation is just one of many career paths that the University of Arizona MSN in Clinical Systems Leadership online program can prepare you for.

Often, patient navigators will assist in ethical and legal healthcare issues and complications that arise with insurance.


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