Patient Navigators: Guides for the Cancer Journey

Feb 25, 2013, 14:00 ET from National Cancer Institute

By the National Cancer Institute

BETHESDA, Md., Feb. 25, 2013 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- Editor's Note:  The following article is part of the monthly Lifelines education and awareness print series that the National Cancer Institute provides to African American news and information outlets


Seeking medical care often feels like entering a maze. The best path forward is not always clear, and the future is uncertain. All patients, including those from minority populations, can benefit from the assistance of a personal guide—someone who knows how to gain access to quality medical care.

The good news is that these guides do exist. Known as Patient Navigators, they provide advice and assistance to patients with cancer and their families. Navigators can help patients choose a doctor, consider treatment options, arrange transportation for appointments, as well as see that the patient follows the prescribed care regimen. This extra support can be extremely helpful.

The concept of Patient Navigation was originally developed in the late 1980s as a way to help underserved patients at the Harlem Hospital Center in New York City. Since then, many Patient Navigator programs have been established at hospitals throughout the nation.

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) sponsored research on Patient Navigators. The NCI Patient Navigation Research Program (PNRP) focused on addressing cancer health disparities. This program tested and evaluated Patient Navigation models in racially/ethnically diverse populations that have a high burden of cancer, including African Americans, American Indians, Asians, and Hispanics/Latinos, as well in rural, underserved communities. 

There were nine U.S. research sites:

Colorado (Denver); Florida (Tampa); Illinois (Chicago);  Massachusetts (Boston); New York (Rochester); Ohio (Columbus); Texas (San Antonio); and Oregon (Portland); and Washington, DC. Eight of these sites were funded by the NCI, and one was supported by the American Cancer Society. Through the PNRP, major medical centers in these cities formed partnerships with community organizations to enhance access to cancer care. The most successful models will be shared across the country.

The Many Roles of Patient Navigators

Navigators may be trained volunteers or health professionals such as nurses or social workers. They are familiar with the healthcare system and the needs of patients, and they are resourceful. Navigators can be trusted to understand and respect cultural differences; they also know how to address language barriers and financial issues. Their activities include:

  • providing emotional support and information on what to expect to cancer patients
  • helping patients understand their diagnoses
  • coordinating appointments with providers to ensure that patients with abnormal test results receive timely diagnosis and treatment
  • ensuring that appropriate medical records are available at scheduled appointments
  • helping arrange transportation, child care, and/or elder care so that patients can attend cancer testing or treatment visits
  • organizing language translation or interpretation services
  • helping patients and their families access support systems
  • coordinating follow-up to community outreach support services

Where to Learn More

Here are some resources for learning more about Patient Navigators:

NCI leads the National Cancer Program and the NIH effort to dramatically reduce the burden of cancer and improve the lives of cancer patients and their families, through research into prevention and cancer biology, the development of new interventions, and the training and mentoring of new researchers. For more information about cancer, please visit the NCI web site at or call NCI's Cancer Information Service at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237). More articles and videos in the culturally relevant Lifelines series are available at

SOURCE National Cancer Institute