Roles for cancer patient programs, including navigators and associated digital tools should be funded in the health system, with new global research at Flinders University demonstrating that such programs can improve medical outcomes by increasing screening rates and reducing waiting times for cancer diagnosis and treatment.

In 2020, over 19 million people worldwide were diagnosed with cancer and 10 million died from the disease. This startling figure underscores the importance of evidence-based guidance for screening and surveillance, ongoing evaluation and treatment, symptom management, co-ordination between specialists and primary care providers, and cost-effective, follow-up care.

Cancer patient navigators are typically trained nurses, social workers or healthcare advocates that help guide and support cancer patients with personalised care by working with them to understand their diagnosis, treatment options, and relevant medical information.

A new global study published today in the leading cancer journal, CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians has compared the experiences and outcomes of thousands of cancer patients who were supported by navigators with those that weren’t in regions including Australia, the U.S, the U.K, the EU, Asia and Canada.

Gathering international evidence, the results show that patient navigation is strongly linked to increased and successful rates of screening, earlier medical diagnosis and cancer outcomes worldwide.

The results also highlight the benefits of effective navigation to reduce healthcare costs.

“Navigating the healthcare system as a cancer patient can be an overwhelming experience, especially for those facing multiple barriers when accessing health care. Barriers include lack of health and system knowledge, lack of financial resources or health insurance coverage, geographic distances from care providers, and lack of social support,” says the study’s lead author, Professor Raymond Chan, Director of the Caring Futures Institute and Dean of Research (Nursing and Health Sciences) at Flinders University.

“It’s clear that First Nations people, and those from the culturally and linguistically diverse populations and rural and remote areas have worse cancer outcomes and experiences, and this must change.”

“This challenge can begin at the time of diagnosis and continue throughout treatment, follow-up care, survivorship, and palliative care and end-of-life care. But navigation covers support required at the cancer screening and early detection, even before the cancer diagnosis.”

Head and neck cancer survivor advocate Julie McCrossin AM says support from a patient navigator to arrange and attend appointments can mean the difference between life and death.

“I remember the weeks of my intensive treatment for cancer and the follow-up as a busy time of multiple blood tests, scans and radiation and chemotherapy treatments. Each week I had appointments with several doctors, nurses and allied health practitioners.”

“Patient Navigators can help vulnerable cancer patients by co-ordinating care, organising transport, providing information, overcoming cultural and language barriers and offering emotional support to encourage people to complete treatment.

“I am especially excited by the role patient navigators can play in providing education about cancer screening and symptoms at community locations and events. Early diagnosis saves lives and navigators can reach out to multicultural and First Nations communities to improve the uptake of screening and early diagnosis, followed by support to get treatment quickly.”

Professor Chan says the study results show that effective navigation is strongly linked with patients successfully overcoming socio-economic barriers, difficulties accessing healthcare, and screening and treatment outcomes for Indigenous populations around the world.

“Our research shows that patient navigation is clearly improving participation in cancer screening for breast, cervical, colorectal, and lung cancer and reducing times from screening to diagnosis, and diagnosis to starting treatment.”

“The evidence also suggests patient navigation improves quality of life and patient satisfaction with care in the survivorship phase, and may reduce hospital re-admission in the active treatment and survivorship care phases,” says Professor Raymond Chan.

“These significant findings provide data supporting the effectiveness of funding and employing navigators in healthcare systems around the world, when considering improved treatment outcomes and reduced costs to the healthcare system.”

“There are also further opportunities to adopt artificial intelligence in conjunction with human navigators. Effective navigation is vital to providing appropriate services that support Indigenous people who are less likely to access screening in Australia and Canada and are diagnosed at a later stage.”