Ellen Carlson, RN, OCN, CN-BN is an oncology nurse navigator at Sutter Auburn Faith Hospital (SAFH) in Auburn, Calif. She has worked in oncology for 10 years and started the nurse navigation program at SAFH in April 2014. Prior to launching the new program, Carlson was the manager of the medical oncology clinic at the Sutter Health Alta Bates Summit Comprehensive Cancer Center.
Q: How would you define your role as a nurse navigator?
Ellen Carlson: A nurse navigator is a nurse that plays many roles for the benefit of patients. This includes acting as an educator, advocate, liaison, coach, coordinator, guide, and problem solver.
Nurse navigation is a broad role of supporting an individual patient in a meaningful and comprehensive way, helping to compassionately navigate a patient’s cancer journey. One patient referred to my navigation role as “the ultimate wingwoman.”
Q: What is the most important work you do as a nurse navigator?
EC: I believe the most important thing that I do is provide patient education. It’s an essential aspect of almost every interaction that I have with patients. They might have just heard their diagnosis and need education about what it all means or information about what to expect next. Sometimes it’s not the patient that needs information; it could be their spouse, a family member, or other caregiver.
I host patient support classes and events regularly that allow people to learn something new in a friendly, supportive, and less clinical setting. I also do a good deal of public education, speaking regularly in our local community at events and to community groups about cancer awareness, prevention, screening, and resources available through the hospital. I believe when people have the information they need, in a way that they can understand, it helps to lessen fear and uncertainty, supports decision making and planning, helps alleviate anxiety, and helps to remove a primary barrier to care.
Q: What do you like best about your job?
EC: I really love the people I meet and have the privilege to support, both patients and their families. Every day I see people who demonstrate incredible courage, grace, strength, and humor, despite the health challenges they are facing. To be able to support them and play a small part in their lives is a unique privilege.
And, of course, oncology is a very dynamic and fascinating field to be in, with new technological developments in care and treatment happening frequently.
Q: What value do you think nurse navigation provides?
EC: For patients to know they are supported and have someone who cares about them and their progress is invaluable. Whether they just need a shoulder to lean on, information on a support group, or someone to explain to them what the doctor just said, they know they can call me. That tells the patient that we at Sutter Health value them and their experience and have invested in a support service for them that is accessible and personalized.
Q: Can you share any patient stories or experiences that demonstrate the value of nurse navigation?
EC: I am reminded of the value of my role when I run into my former patients in the community. They greet me with such enthusiasm and joy, and explain to those they are with of the important role that I had in their life. And I have heard many times from patients that they “couldn’t have gotten through this without you.” They could have, but for them to feel strongly enough to say that really shows the value of SAFH’s nurse navigation program.
Q: What would you say to an organization that is contemplating whether to implement a nurse navigation program?
EC: At Sutter Health, we have nurse navigation programs in many of our hospitals to help provide guidance, support, and hope for our patients. I strongly encourage other organizations to implement a program like the one I created at SAFH. I have found patients are grateful and appreciative of the resources and support we provide. Nurse navigation programs help create a continuum of care that provides a smooth transition for our patients, helping to increase overall patient satisfaction.
With that said, be sure to plan with care. Think about how navigation and care coordination will fit into your organization, and have clear expectations and an overall vision for the service and outcomes you hope to achieve.