Cancer comes in many forms, and the right treatment for one cancer patient may not be the best course for another, said Hatti Hamlin of El Camino Hospital. "It may be the most complex disease that one can be engaged with," she said.
In an effort to more effectively combat cancer, the hospital is introducing a new, highly personalized program that assigns case managers to cancer patients with the intent of creating and sticking to an individualized treatment plan.
The "patient navigators" will serve both as a physician's assistant and an advocate for the patient and the patient's family, said Hamlin, a hospital spokeswoman.
Patients must, among other things, decide which course of treatment they will take, make appointments, negotiate with insurance companies, figure out how they will pay for the fees insurance companies won't and monitor their diet, all while suffering from the physical pain and mental anguish the disease causes.
"The patient at the center of this is just terrified and tired and sick and trying to deal with it all," Hamlin said. "A patient can just get worn out."
Family members can offer a great deal of assistance, according to John Holt, executive director of the Cancer Service Line at El Camino, but caring for a loved one can prove to be especially taxing; in some instances it could even lead to rash decisions being made.
A navigator will approach each case with an objective eye, Holt said, and make sure that their patients don't rush into a treatment without considering all options.
At the same time, the navigator will be charged with keeping everyone involved in the process -- the patient, their family and their team of doctors -- on the same page and up to speed at all times. This, Holt said, will help ensure that everything moves along without unnecessary delays.
"The reason we need patient navigators is that cancer is very multidisciplinary," Holt said.
A lung cancer patient, for instance, will work with a thoracic surgeon, a pulmonologist, a medical oncologist and a radiation oncologist in their quest to get well. All these specialists, Holt said, "play a part, and in order to make the right decision, they have to coordinate with each other. They collectively decide on treatment avenues."
Setting up appointments and getting all the doctors on a multidisciplinary team on the same page is no small task, Holt said. "The navigator helps coordinate and gets the patient through that group of people quickly."
While the patient navigator is working with the doctors to streamline the treatment process, they will also be available to answer questions of patients, who may not always be able to reach their doctors.
The patient navigator program was given a kick start on May 14, when El Camino Hospital celebrated its 50th anniversary dinner. The black tie "Sapphire Soiree," which featured a performance from Grammy-winner Kenny Loggins, raised $650,000 that will be used to launch the program. The money came from the donations of 420 guests and a matching contribution of $250,000 from longtime hospital supporters Pamela and Ed Taft.
Patient navigator programs are not new, Hamlin said, but they are gaining in popularity, and are now endorsed by the National Institutes of Health.
According to Margaret Stauffer, program director for Cancer Support Community, having a patient navigator can be a godsend. Stauffer's organization, which has locations in Walnut Creek and Mountain View, specializes in helping cancer patients and their families deal with the pain and stress caused by the disease.
"There is so much information out there," Stauffer said. "In some ways it is difficult to sort through."
People have to work hard to find the right physician and the right treatment. Then, once a patient has settled on a medical team and a course of action, "it can seem as though your life is ruled by your next treatment, your next medical appointment," she said. "All of those things are difficult enough when you are feeling well. When you aren't feeling well, having someone who can guide you through that process can be really invaluable."
Holt said he hopes that El Camino's patient navigators will prove to be invaluable. By working directly with doctors to keep them on the same page, by making sure patients understand all the options before them and by keeping families in the loop, he believes that they will certainly improve the level of cancer care at the hospital.
There are more than 100 forms of cancer, Holt said, and ultimately the navigator's aim will be to address each patient individually in order to help them create and execute the best possible treatment plan.
The hospital will likely begin by hiring a pair of navigators to get the program started and will expand from there, Holt said.