Receiving a diagnosis for a medical condition can be nerve-wracking for any patient. It can be overwhelming not only because of the news about the condition, but the decisions required and next steps to take.

Many patients don’t know what questions to ask their doctor, and others don’t know how to best evaluate their options. Patients may forget what the doctor is discussing or be in such a heightened emotional state that the conversation is a complete blur. This, in turn, can make it difficult for patients to make sound decisions about their care.

Take, for example, Mary Bianchi, who was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her surgeon talked to her about an intense treatment plan that included a lumpectomy and removal of lymph nodes. Mary researched her options for treatment online, but she was overwhelmed. She then got a second opinion at the University of California San Francisco Breast Care Center. Like most health care centers, they gave her informational videos and booklets about treatment options. However, what this center did differently was something else — Mary received a personal coach.

The coach accompanied Mary on doctor visits, took notes, and helped her brainstorm questions about treatment and concerns about outcomes. The coach made her feel more empowered and informed about her health care choices.

Healthcare coaches are a recent addition to the healthcare world, as part of something called patient navigator programs. The coaches help patients through the logistical, emotional, and sometimes cultural barriers that can inhibit their ability to successfully navigate the healthcare system.

Pioneered by Harold P. Freeman, M.D. in 1990, the purpose of patient navigator programs are to eliminate barriers to timely screening, diagnosis, treatment, and supportive care. Some of these barriers include:

  • Financial barriers
  • A lack of understanding of the healthcare process and options for care
  • Language barriers
  • Psychological barriers such as fear of treatment and distrust of the system

Since its inception, the current patient navigation model has expanded to include the entire healthcare continuum — from prevention, detection, diagnosis, treatment, and supportive, to end-of-life care. In addition, this type of program has been employed at the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, Cleveland Clinic, and the Ralph Lauren Center for Cancer Care and Prevention. Overall, these programs improve navigation and satisfaction rates of patients.

Today, instead of feeling overwhelmed when facing a myriad number of healthcare options, patients can feel empowered by having a health care coach at their side. If you’re interested in becoming a healthcare coach in a patient navigator program, you can apply for a program here.

The patient navigator program stems from The Harold P. Freeman Patient Navigation Institute, a 501(c)(3) organization located in New York City. Since its founding, the program has taught over 1,000 people the skills of successful patient navigation.