Can’t find a navigator to help? Don’t worry, you CAN learn to self-navigate

When you think of a navigator, you might imagine someone experienced and trustworthy, using instruments and maps, guiding a ship or aircraft safely to it’s destination.

How about a navigator on your medical journey?  How would you like someone to direct you, making sure you keep appointments, take your medications, remember what tests to have done, checking that you are coping?

How about if you can’t find one?  Well, you CAN learn to self-navigate!

This particular paper, defines a cancer patient navigator (for example) as an individual trained to help identify and resolve real and perceived barriers to care, enabling patients to adhere to care recommendations and thus improve their cancer outcomes.

If you have any significant medical problems, it is crucial to learn how to self-navigate.  If you are a caregiver for family members with complex health issues (children, parents, spouses, etc), this is an indispensable skill.

Here are just 4 ways to start developing this important skill:

Write, write and write some more:  Keep a health summary.  Learn and write down essentials of your medical condition(s).  No, I do not mean to imply that one becomes a doctor if not trained as one, but one can come up with a short summary for reference.  Keep a list of medications.  Keep an account of symptoms, onset, and duration, in between appointments.  Keep a list of doctors and their phone numbers (and include what each doctor does, for example, Dr. X is a Cardiologist who manages my  heart problems).  Never walk to a doctors appointment without a written agenda and never leave without a written summary of next steps.

Ask questions:  Your medical team wants to know if you are uncertain.  They are there to help you.  If you forget something, do call back and ask.  If you are sent to see another doctor, like an outside referral for a problem, and you don’t hear back to schedule the appointment, do call.  If you had a test and did not hear about results, call the office and ask.  If you are told of results, ask, “what is the next step?”  At appointments, do not hesitate to state if instructions are confusing, or if you need more clarification.  If you deliberate on things and feel dissatisfied with your comprehension, call and ask for a return appointment.

Remember other members of your health team:  If you have financial issues, a social worker can be an amazing resource.  A clinical pharmacist at your doctor’s office (f there is one) may be able to help you if confused about medications.  The scheduler is the person you contact if you need an appointment.  It may be that you contact your doctor’s medical assistant if you are not being called back about a referral.  Put together a list of names, positions, and phone numbers for reference.

Follow through and always seek closure:  If your condition is not getting better with treatment, ask your doctor what to do.  If you have had several symptoms for a while and there is no diagnosis yet, ask if a second opinion might help.  If you don’t hear about that referral, call the office and ask.  If you are asked to make another appointment in 3 months and somehow you did not make it on your way out, then plug a reminder into your calendar to call later.  Do not assume that things sort themselves out.

Question: Have you ever felt confused in your medical care and follow up?  What steps did you find helpful? Feel free to leave a comment.

Written by 

Author of "Self navigate for health" available as eBook on Amazon and paperback on Lulu. Hematology-oncology physician writing about medical self-advocacy or "self-navigation", cancer, blood disorders, and books

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