What’s In a Name? A Caveat for “Navigators”

Friend of health and patient advocates and NAVIGATORs everywhere, Elisabeth Russell, forwarded a link to many of us this week – an article from the National Cancer Institute regarding the use of patient navigators for cancer patients.

My first reaction is – what a marvelous, MARVELOUS service these navigators are providing to cancer patients. I have to wonder how cancer patients ever survived treatment prior to having a navigator to help them!

And then I have to pause….

I see a few problems cropping up – two that can be problematic for health and patient advocates, and one a problem for patients.

The problems for advocates:

First: The term “navigator” is being co-opted by the cancer community so that, when the public hears “navigator,” it is aligning that term with cancer. If you use that term in your company name, it could become a problem for you down the road UNLESS you, too, are focusing on cancer clients, and don’t care to market your services to people with other medical challenges.

If you haven’t yet chosen a name for your practice, then I would avoid “Navigator” or “Navigation” (with the same exception listed above.)

No problem using the word as a description of what you do – as in, “I help you navigate your care,” as long as you have other descriptors for the work you do and services you provide, too.

Second: Since cancer navigators are available in the hospital or large cancer practices, patients are not paying for them directly. I can guarantee the cost of navigator services is being built in somewhere (beware the $75 box of tissues!) – but patients think they are being helped for free. Next time they get sick, or if they hear a friend is sick, their thought will be to contact a patient navigator – whose services (they believe) will be free.

Imagine how upset they will be if they find you (who has “navigator” in the name of what he or she does) and find out you plan to charge them for your services! This is already a problem for many of us regardless of our business names – but once patients internalize the concept that navigator = free, then it will become an even bigger problem.

My only recommendation is this: If you currently use the term “navigator” in your company name (and yes – there are a few of you) – unless you plan to only concentrate on working with cancer patients, consider rebranding yourself.

And if you don’t already use the term “navigator”, then don’t start, even if you plan to work only with cancer patients, because you don’t want people to think you are offering your services for free (unless, of course, you are!)

As for patients…

As advocates, you might ask the question, “If a patient can be assigned a “free” navigator in the hospital for cancer care, then why would they ever hire me?”

The answer is just the same as the answer would be if those navigators didn’t exist – because rarely do navigators do any double-checking, looking behind the scenes, or are they questioning the status quo.

Disclaimer: I am sure that some cancer navigators look under the system rocks – but they are not in the majority. If you are one of them, then I’m not talking about you.

Most cancer navigators are there to help a patient through the already-prescribed route, the one determined for the patient by the doctor. They are paid by the hospital, and therefore their allegiance is to the hospital. (Learn more about the Allegiance Factor.)

That is NOT the same as the service provided by a private, independent advocate. An independent advocate doesn’t even accept a diagnosis to begin with, unless a second, confirming opinion has already been rendered. An independent advocate makes sure clients understand ALL his or her treatment options. An independent advocate speaks up and bucks the system when necessary on behalf of her client. An independent advocate is beholden only to his or her client – and not the hospital, or cancer center, or any other part of the system. That’s the Allegiance Factor, too.

Or – another way to look at it…. If you were arrested for committing a crime you didn’t commit, who would you want to represent you: the FREE court appointed lawyer? Or the independent, turn-over-every rock lawyer whose only reason for existence was to make sure you weren’t found guilty?

I rest my case.



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