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Whatcom guides development of emerging healthcare role

BY CINDY BURMAN-WOODS, courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Post Date:11/03/2014
The United States health care system is the most expensive in the world, but reports consistently show the U.S. underperforms relative to other countries on most dimensions of performance such as access, efficiency and healthy lives. (Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, 2014 Update: How the U.S. Health Care System Compares Internationally, Commonwealth Fund) Galvanized by The Affordable Care Act and a genuine commitment to improve, healthcare providers are seeking ways to reduce healthcare costs and increase patient satisfaction. One promising prescription is provided by a fairly new role in the healthcare team – patient navigation. This role has shown to positively increase patient satisfaction, lower readmission rates to hospitals and reduce healthcare costs. As a leader in workforce development and education, Whatcom Community College (WCC) is guiding training of professionals in this emerging field.

Those in a patient navigation role are essential members of the care team. The National Cancer Institute describes the role as “trained, culturally sensitive healthcare workers who provide support and guidance throughout the ... care continuum. They help people ‘navigate’ through the maze of doctors' offices, clinics, hospitals, outpatient centers, insurance and payment systems, patient-support organizations, and other components of the health care system.” Working with a patient navigator can increase access to delivery of quality care and improve patients’ and family members’ satisfaction with the healthcare system.

WCC is the lead institution in a partnership with five Washington state colleges that has convened employers and other stakeholders throughout the state to identify skills and competencies required of this role. Whatcom was selected to direct this project due to previous success leading similar grant projects and developing proven patient navigation and advocacy curriculum. The work is funded with a $567,500 state grant to develop instructional programs that will prepare students for these emerging careers in the healthcare industry. Whatcom worked closely with local health professions employers to consider required skills as well as the perspectives of patients and family members who will work with those in patient navigation roles. Our local partners who participated in workforce summits, provided input to curriculum, and supported the 2014 pilot Patient Navigation course include the Whatcom Alliance for Health Advancement (WAHA), Family Care Network, PeaceHealth, Sea Mar, Northwest Regional Council, Care Coordination Community of Practice, and the Foundation for Healthy Generations.

The result is an innovative short certificate in patient navigation. Offered through WCC’s Continuing Education department, this hybrid lecture/online course prepares licensed and certified healthcare professionals as well as other community members to provide patient advocacy and navigation services. Through coursework and expert guest lecturers, participants will explore the health and community services system in-depth. Students will develop skills in communication, patient activation, decision support, accessing resources, facilitating access to care, and other critical skills used with patients and patient care teams.

In a healthcare setting, a patient navigator may join a patient and family member when a doctor shares a diagnosis. A patient navigator can listen objectively and then confirm that the patient understands a potentially stressful diagnosis and has the resources to follow through on the plan of care. They also recognize barriers to care and facilitate referrals and other solutions. For instance, financial or other socioeconomic barriers might be one of many reasons that 20 to 30 percent of prescriptions are never filled, and 50 percent are not continued as prescribed, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Patient navigation services are a conduit to connecting patients with community organizations that can help.

Patient navigation can have a dramatic, positive impact on patient satisfaction and wellness. Research suggests that an individual's health literacy – the ability to interpret and act on health information – is a strong predictor of whether they will correctly follow instructions for their own care. Increasing their understanding and encouraging them to follow through on their health care steps reduces re-admittance to the hospital, eliminates inefficiencies, and most importantly, supports the long-term health of patients. This expanding role could be some of the best medicine for patients and for our country’s healthcare system. WCC is proud to guide the development of professionals who will serve in this critical position statewide.

About the author: Cindy Burman-Woods is Whatcom Community College’s Workforce Special Projects director and project manager of North to South Consortium Improving Pathways to Healthcare Careers.

Read more here.

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