What is a Nurse Navigator?

A relatively new role for nurses, the nurse navigator is assigned to assist and support patients and their families through the foreign maze of the healthcare world. As with any foreign travel, not understanding the language, landmarks, or unusual customs can be terrifying for those facing a life-altering diagnosis. The nurse navigator is both a translator and guide to ease the journey of fear and uncertainty.

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Where Do Nurse Navigators Work?

Although the role is quickly expanding, most nurse navigators are working with oncology patients facing chemotherapy, surgery, and/or radiation. For example, nurse navigators at Genesis Health System's Cancer Care Institute employ a team of nurses to have one-on-one contact with patients to offer resources and education regarding the planned treatment. The nurse navigator acts as a liaison between the patient and all members of the care team.

Patients facing treatment for cancer can expect to interact with a large care team. Teams are typically comprised of a Primary Care Physician (PCP), oncologist, hematologist, palliative care physician, pharmacist, behavioral medicine provider, and nurse navigator. While this is ideal and in the best interest of the patient, the vast team can be overwhelming to patients. If a change or problem occurs, it can be confusing to the patient to figure out which care team member to contact. For example, if the patient has a port-a-cath inserted for chemotherapy and there is a problem, does the patient or family contact the PCP, the surgeon who placed the device, the surgery center where the device was placed, the oncologist who ordered the medication to be infused, or the pharmacy that delivered the medication? This is a small example of why a nurse navigator is needed for this fragile population.

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Organizations that choose to create roles for nurse navigators are putting the patient at the center of the care, and increased patient satisfaction scores reinforce this fact. Numerous articles are published each year touting not only the intangibles such as the patient's perceived improvement of care, but also decreased hospital readmission rates and ED visits in the departments where nurse navigators are utilized. Most complex disease states require a large commitment by patients and families and noncompliance to treatment regimens is not uncommon. Departments where a nurse is navigating the care improve compliance and therefore outcomes and overall health of the patients. As medicine becomes more specialized, patients and caregivers need a healthcare expert to guide them through the complexities of care from diagnosis to survivorship. The role of the nurse navigator can provide this expertise with a proven return on investment for forward-thinking organizations that put the patient at the center of the care model.

How To Become a Nurse Navigator

If you’re ready to get started as a nurse educator, here are a few ways you can diversify your nursing background and start finding nurse navigator jobs.

  1. Earn Your Nursing Degree: If you haven’t done so already, the first step towards becoming a Nurse Navigator is to obtain a nursing degree. You can pursue either an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) from an accredited institution. A BSN might offer more comprehensive training and better career prospects.
  2. Gain Clinical Experience: After completing your nursing degree, gaining clinical experience is crucial. Work as a registered nurse (RN) in a healthcare setting such as a hospital, clinic, or community health center. This hands-on experience will provide you with a solid foundation in patient care, healthcare protocols, and communication skills.
  3. Specialize and Obtain Certification: While not mandatory, obtaining certification in a specialty area relevant to Nurse Navigation can enhance your credentials and job prospects. Organizations like the Oncology Nursing Certification Corporation (ONCC) offer certifications such as Certified Breast Care Nurse (CBCN) or Certified Oncology Nurse Navigator (CON-N).
  4. Develop Communication and Advocacy Skills: Nurse Navigators serve as liaisons between patients, healthcare providers, and support services. Developing strong communication, interpersonal, and advocacy skills is essential. You'll need to effectively communicate medical information, provide emotional support, and advocate for patients' needs throughout their healthcare journey.
  5. Stay Updated on Healthcare Trends: Healthcare is constantly evolving, with new treatments, technologies, and regulations emerging regularly. Stay informed about current healthcare trends, research advancements, and patient advocacy initiatives. Continuing education, attending conferences, and joining professional organizations can help you stay abreast of these developments.
  6. Network and Seek Mentorship: Networking with other Nurse Navigators and healthcare professionals can provide valuable insights and opportunities. Seek mentorship from experienced Nurse Navigators who can offer guidance, share their experiences, and provide support as you navigate your career path.
  7. Embrace Technology: Technology plays a significant role in modern healthcare delivery. Familiarize yourself with electronic health records (EHRs), telemedicine platforms, and healthcare apps that can streamline patient care and communication. Being tech-savvy will enhance your effectiveness as a Nurse Navigator.
  8. Demonstrate Empathy and Cultural Competence: Patients come from diverse backgrounds and may have unique cultural, linguistic, or socioeconomic considerations. Cultivate empathy, respect, and cultural competence to effectively engage with patients from all walks of life and provide inclusive, patient-centered care.
  9. Explore Job Opportunities: Nurse Navigators can work in various healthcare settings, including hospitals, cancer centers, physician practices, and insurance companies. Explore job opportunities in your area and consider the specific patient population or specialty area you're passionate about.
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