Patient navigation is one important and cost-effective way to enhance access to health care for underserved and vulnerable patients.
Earlier this month, we launched our newest Patient Navigation Program in Montevideo, Uruguay. At Jardines del Hipodromo, a community health center in Uruguay’s capital city, two patient navigators are helping women with abnormal Pap tests receive the follow-up care they need.
Pap tests are an important step in the early detection of cervical abnormalities and critical for the prevention of cervical cancer. Cervical cancer is one of the most common cancers affecting women in Uruguay and other low- and middle-income countries, and despite a comprehensive national prevention plan, the disease continues to impact the most vulnerable women in Uruguayan society – women in the public sector, young and single mothers, and those with lower educational levels and socioeconomic status.
In order to detect and prevent the progression of cervical cancer, Pap tests are recommended for every women between 21 and 69 years of age. However, the proportion of women who receive a Pap test in Uruguay is low, and among those who do receive a Pap test, few know the results of their test or move on to receive the recommended follow-up care. The important thing to know about cervical cancer is that it is preventable – through screening, early detection, and timely follow-up, no woman should have to suffer from it. Yet women in Uruguay and other low- and middle-income countries are still presenting with cervical cancer at advanced stages and, as a result, are dying from a preventable disease.
Patient navigation is one important and cost-effective way to enhance access to health care for underserved and vulnerable patients who suffer from – or are at great risk from suffering from – cancer. Patient navigators are specialized health care workers that operate at the intersection of social work, community outreach, and patient support, and they are important liaisons between patients and their health care teams. In Uruguay, our patient navigators are there to help women understand their Pap test results, know what they should do next, access existing health resources, and overcome barriers to receive the follow-up care they need. In this way, navigators are supporting women as they “navigate” the health system to access life-saving screening and treatment, thereby improving patient outcomes and cancer mortality.
1. Delivering test results: In a fragmented health system, sometimes just knowing your test results can be half of the battle for women receiving recommended Pap tests at their local health center. In Uruguay, there is a very important national plan to prevent cervical cancer, and the national program reads Pap tests from around the country to determine whether they are normal or not. Unfortunately, those results are not delivered back to the health center where the Pap test was performed. Even though women are supposed to receive a call from the national program with their results, the health center has no way of knowing which patients need follow-up care or if the women in their clinic are even receiving these calls. As part of the new Patient Navigation Program, navigators will personally call every women in the health center with an abnormal Pap result in the past two years to deliver the results.
2. Coordinating next steps: So your results have come back abnormal…now what? Once a woman learns of her Pap result from the navigator, the navigator will tell her what the recommended follow-up care is. The woman might need to come back for a repeat Pap, she may need a different test, or sometimes she will have to go to a specialty health care center for follow-up. The navigator will know this information and know how to help the woman get to where she needs to be – either by scheduling the follow-up appointment, informing her about clinic hours and days of services, or connecting her with a gynecologist to learn more about her options.
3. Overcoming barriers to care: Oftentimes, it isn’t enough to simply have a follow-up appointment scheduled. Patients are often faced with barriers that prevent them from showing up to their appointment or continuing to attend important follow-up appointments in the future. Work, family obligations, and childcare are some of the most common barriers that patients – especially women – face when trying to find time to go to the doctor. Other barriers may include lack of proper health insurance paperwork, difficulty reading or writing, language barriers, or lack of transportation to the clinic. The navigator is equipped to help with each of these issues – either by helping directly with the filing of paperwork for health insurance or patient registration, or connecting the patient to community resources for help with childcare or transportation. Sometimes something as simple as being able to purchase a discounted bus pass can help a women attend a lifesaving follow-up appointment.
4. Educating and empowering: In addition to all of the “logistical” barriers a patient could face, there are educational and psychological barriers that keep patients from attending appointments and making the most of their time with their doctor. Navigators also work to help patients understand what an abnormal Pap test means, as well as the importance of Pap tests, follow-up appointments, and both initiating and completing medical treatment. In this way, navigators can help empower patients to take an active role in seeking out healthcare, so women can continue positive health-seeking behaviors in this and other aspects of their health. By educating women about the importance of taking control of your health, the navigator can have a “ripple effect” in the community that isn’t limited just to the prevention of cervical cancer, but extends to other aspects of personal and family health.
5. Providing emotional support: Finally, a navigator provides emotional support throughout a woman’s journey to seek out her follow-up care. The anxiety that comes with an abnormal test result can be a barrier in and of itself, and many women feel shame or fear, which prevents them from addressing the issue early. They also worry about the impact on their families and jobs, and a navigator is there to connect women to support groups or simply provide emotional support by listening to and empathizing with them. Having an advocate dissipates some of the anxiety associated with coming to the health center to see a doctor, perform another test, or start treatment for a disease, and as a woman is shuttled around from doctor to doctor within a fragmented health system, a navigator can be a friendly face or an extra lifeline in a time of need.
In these ways, patient navigators facilitate access to timely and quality care and help create a more positive healthcare experience, which lead to better health outcomes and greater patient empowerment. Our patient navigators are working to change the way follow-up care is provided to women in Montevideo, and their work will undoubtedly have a positive impact on the health center, the community, and the health system.