Just how effective are health navigators?

The medical community focused on improving Hispanic access to care has long advocated the use of health navigators, individuals who can work with a patient…

Health navigators can help guide breast cancer patients through care. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

The medical community focused on improving Hispanic access to care has long advocated the use of health navigators, individuals who can work with a patient one-on-one to help them understand the system and receive the care they need.

Now, new research suggests health navigators are important to more than just immigrant families–navigated patients seem to fair better in general.

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In a study following over 1,000 women with breast cancer participating in the Patient Navigation Research Program (PNRP), researchers pulled data to see how many patients received recommended anti-estrogen therapy, radiation, or chemotherapy.

The numbers were then compared to those from women with the same health profiles who did not have access to a health navigator.

The findings revealed navigated patients were more likely to receive anti-estrogen therapy but no more likely than controls (women without health navigators) to receive radiation. The data regarding chemotherapy was insufficient to draw conclusions.

“These results suggest that patient navigation can be a promising solution/intervention,” the authors wrote, “particularly because the current literature suggests that minority women of low socioeconomic status are at risk of low adherence to anti-estrogen therapy.”

While the researchers did not delve into why health navigators created a difference when it came to women with breast cancer, experts say the results are not surprising. Women from all cultures of low socioeconomic status face barriers that health navigators can help overcome.

These include transportation, a lack of education and a lack of medical understanding or knowledge.

It appears, however, that even health navigators aren’t enough to penetrate certain areas of the medical world. Researchers theorized the similar numbers among all women when it came to radiation have to do with how difficult it is for anyone to deal with the barriers found in radiation treatment.

They explained barriers addressed in radiation therapy may require a different set of actions compared with assistance in obtaining anti-estrogen therapy, such as assistance with transportation or managing work schedules which could have played a more prominent role.

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 “Our lack of a consistent finding in favor of navigation for all three quality treatment metrics suggests that the benefits of navigation may depend on the type of barriers addressed (eg, financial, transportation) and personal interaction (education and/or understanding regarding illness, treatment, and so on),” the authors said. “Targeting resources to the right area (eg, timeliness, transportation, or logistical help) will identify which aspects of care are best suited for patient navigation to make a difference.”