When It's Bad News, the Good News is Nurse Navigators

Counselor and patient

It’s hard to hear that you have breast cancer, but Kim Saum-Mills was comforted by the unique guidance of a CHI Health nurse navigator. Thanks to an innovative program pioneered more than 10 years ago, there are 17 oncology-certified nurses at CHI Health hospitals from Omaha to Kearney, Nebraska.

Saum-Mills – two years out from her last chemotherapy treatment – was joined at medical appointments by Nicole Peterson, RN, BSN, OCN, nurse navigator, Midwest Cancer Center in Omaha.

“It’s a terrible thing to go through, but I had an outstanding experience – she navigated me through scary, difficult situations,” said Saum-Mills, 47, of Gretna, Nebraska. “I wish everyone going through a difficult medical situation would have someone like her. I cannot tell you how many times I referred back to the notes Nicole took for me. I needed it all clearly written down.”

Family physicians can be assured that a nurse navigator sees each patient at the time of biopsy, said Dana Welsh, RN, BSN, OCN, nurse navigator, CHI Health Good Samaritan Cancer Center in Kearney.

“That really sets us apart in having contact with patients prior to cancer diagnosis,” Welsh said. “We are able to develop a rapport from diagnosis through treatment and into survivorship.”

“It is all about developing a relationship and being a constant support for patients while they feel like they have no control and their life is in limbo,” said Karen Pribnow, RN, MSN, OCN, CN-BN, certified breast cancer nurse navigator, CHI Health St. Elizabeth. “We anticipate their questions as many times they don’t even know what to ask.”

“It’s important for the nurse navigator to be with patients,” said Courtney Fuller, RN, OCN, nurse navigator, CHI Health St. Francis Cancer Center in Grand Island. “It’s a high-anxiety time for them. The education we can provide helps them to be less anxious.”

CHI Health’s nurse navigators assist patients throughout the region. It’s like having a nurse in the family. “We are that one person who can go to the hospital, radiation therapy or medical oncology clinic with them. In oncology, you can never have enough eyes on a patient to be sure things don’t get missed,” Peterson said.

What makes nurse navigators unique in health care?

They’re informative. “Cancer patients retain only about 30 percent of what they are told. We answer questions and let them know we will be there for them,” Pribnow said.

They’re accessible. “We have the luxury of being able to honestly say we have time for the patient,” Peterson said. Nurse navigators are available throughout the week; in the Omaha area, a nurse navigator is on call for 24-hour care.

They’re persistent. Some caregivers only see patients during episodes of care (hospital stay, radiation treatment). “We are that one person who really gets to follow them through the entire continuum of care,” Peterson said.