Health

Navigating the Maze of Cancer Care

Trained patient navigators, left to right Wanda Turner, Michele Whigham-Brown, and Pranvera Mahmutaj, assist women with abnormal breast and cervical cancer screening.

Trained patient navigators, left to right, Wanda Turner, Michele Whigham-Brown, and Pranvera Mahmutaj, assist women with abnormal breast and cervical cancer screening.

It’s no secret that delays in timely treatment of breast and cervical cancer—all cancers, in fact—reduce the odds of successful outcomes. But if you’re a disadvantaged, underserved immigrant woman without friends or family in one of Boston’s many diverse neighborhoods, you may have to choose between an oncology appointment and leaving your children home alone.

Delays in care may impact outcomes disparities, despite the advent of sophisticated treatments with high success rates in white, educated women.

Karen M. Freund

Karen M. Freund

As Professor of Medicine Karen M. Freund discovered more than 10 years ago, women from disadvantaged and underserved populations without a support network miss appointments with specialists, contributing to delays in care that may impact outcomes disparities, despite the advent of sophisticated treatments with high success rates in white, educated women.

Freund, who is chief of the Women’s Health Unit and executive co-director of the Women’s Health Interdisciplinary Research Center, along with co-principal investigator Tracy Battaglia, assistant professor of medicine, and their colleagues received funding from the National Cancer Institute’s Center to Reduce Cancer Health Disparities and the Avon Foundation for the Patient Navigator Research Program. Their Boston program is one of nine sites around the country examining the role and benefits of an individual devoted to helping communities of racial and ethnic minorities and of low socioeconomic status maneuver through the complicated logistics of cancer diagnosis and treatment. Six Boston community health centers, each with one full- or part-time patient navigator and a supervisor, are focusing on women with breast and cervical cancer. (Other centers around the country are also targeting colorectal or prostate cancer.) The multisite study will be completed in 2010.

Tracy Battaglia

Tracy Battaglia

The specially trained navigator arranges for services, such as financial support, interpreters, child-care during scheduled appointments, and transportation. He or she also schedules appointments with health care providers, coordinates services among medical personnel, and provides other assistance as needed to overcome access barriers. Each navigator receives culturally appropriate training compatible with Boston’s diverse communities—including African American, Hispanic, Haitian, and Asian populations, to name a few.

“It’s a very exciting program,” Freund says. “It has real policy implications for how we design health care delivery programs. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services are looking at this program very closely as a model for future funding.”