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Hospital 'Angels' Guide Maine Patients Through Health Care Maze
09/17/2012   Reported By: Patty B. Wight

Health care in the U.S. can be complicated. But there's a growing field of health practioners whose job it is to help patients with chronic diseases navigate the maze of care they need. Maine Medical Center established the first patient navigator program in the state four years ago. As Patty Wight reports, its work with cancer patients extends beyond medical services within the hospital's walls.

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Holly Glidden is a radiologist in Portland with personal insight into just how challenging the health care system can be.

"You know, what's interesting, I say to people today, 'I work in health care, so I should be able to navigate the healthcare system.' But when you are thrown in it as a patient, it's really, really difficult."

Glidden was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009. Suddenly, she faced a myriad of tasks and decisions--things like setting up short- and long-term disability for her job, not to mention decisions about how to fight her cancer.

"Well, there's this treatment, there's this treatment, or this treatment, or there's this treatment, or you could be in a clinical trial," she says. "You know, it's just a lot of information."

But a phone call Glidden received right after her diagnosis made those decisions easier.

Betsy St. Germain"I'm Betsy St. Germain." St. Germain (left) is a patient navigator. She's part nurse, part advocate, part sounding board for whatever is on a patient's mind. She explains diagnoses. She tells patients what to expect next. She helps expedite appointments. She's like a personal GPS, and her work reaches farther than just medical care.

"It's identifying barriers to care," she says. "Do patients need gas money to get to their appointments? Do they need a ride to get to their appointments? Do they have money for a hair prosthesis if they have chemotherapy and lose their hair?"

Then there are the patient's emotional needs. Holly Glidden says navigator St. Germain was the only person she could be vulnerable with.

"I felt that I had to be strong for my family," Glidden says. "And I worked throughout my entire treatment, so she was probably the person I could let that guard down and just let it all hang out, what I was feeling."

St. Germain stood by Glidden's side and held her hand during her operation to remove the tumor. Now cancer-free, Glidden says she thinks the emotional support she got from her patient navigator made her feel more like a whole person once her treatment was over.
Cheryl Bougie
Cheryl Bougie (left) is another patient navigator at Maine Medical Center. There are eight, in all, at their oncology center. Bougie's specialty is lower gastro-intestinal cancers.

From the moment Bougie arrives at work at, she says, her phone rings off the hook. "Yesterday I had what I call 'encounters,' meaning I either had a phone call, an email, or a correspondence. I had close to 55 encounters yesterday."

Today she's talking to a patient recently diagnosed with cancer. She says the biggest barriers to access to care are financial, social, and transportation.

Bougie was a nurse for nine years, and says she always wondered what happened to her patients once they got home. Since she became a navigator, she hasn't looked back.

"I'm sure some people probably think that I go home and cry every day because I deal with patients with cancer," Bougie says. "I actually get more of a feeling of gratification -- and like I've made a difference, and I'm helping people. And I think that yes, there's a lot of sadness when you're dealing with cancer, but for the most part I honestly love and go home with smile on my face more than I do sadness."

Bougie says she thinks patient navigation will only grow in the future. She says she already gets requests for help with other chronic diseases.

Photos by Patty Wight.


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