For the nurse navigators at UNC Lineberger’s PFRC to shift navigation services to the virtual setting, they needed to create a standardized method by which patients could be referred to see a volunteer or nurse navigator virtually. Implementing a standardized virtual referral-based system instead of ad-hoc in-person assessments had the added benefit of allowing patients to decide on the most convenient time to speak with a navigator, increasing the likelihood that patients would be engaged during the conversation. It also served as an opportunity to improve the provider referral pathway, as cancer care team members had historically been inconsistent about referring patients to PFRC navigators.
First, the PFRC nurse navigators analyzed over 100 interviews they had conducted with patients and families before the pandemic and reviewed literature to identify the factors most associated with high barriers to care. Then, they used their findings to develop guidelines on which patients would benefit most from navigation and educated the hospital clinicians and staff on referring eligible patients.
Under the new guidelines, clinicians and staff are encouraged to refer patients to navigation if they have at least one of the following risk factors (though all referrals are accepted):
- Are sixty-five years or older
- Live alone
- Live over one hour from the cancer center
- Need complex care (based on treatment modality, disease stage, and comorbidities)
- Have a malignant hematological diagnosis
- Started a new treatment within the previous 30 days
- Were newly discharged within the previous 14 days
- Require interpreter services (non-English speaker)
To virtualize the referral process, the nurse navigators set up a system where patient referrals are submitted through EHR in-basket messages that are routed to an EHR in-basket pool created specifically for the PFRC navigation program. Referrals can be sent by hospital clinicians, staff, and tumor site-specific clinical nurse navigators or by the PFRC nurse navigators themselves, who review the daily records for scheduled treatments to identify eligible patients.
The PFRC nurse navigators assess the complexity of all referred patients and complete referral forms within the EHR to assign patients to PFRC navigation team members accordingly. The PFRC nurse navigators work with complex patients that may require more advanced education services, while the volunteer patient navigators are responsible for helping address barriers, such as transportation needs and food insecurity. The PFRC also employs a Spanish Liaison who works with all Spanish-speaking patients referred to the PFRC navigation program. In anticipation that Spanish-speaking patients would benefit from additional education and support services during the pandemic, the PFRC nurse navigators recruited three bilingual navigators to support the work of the onsite PFRC Spanish Liaison and conduct proactive outreach to Spanish-speaking patients who have scheduled in-person or virtual appointments.
Concurrently, the oncologists at UNC Lineberger were developing a separate risk stratification algorithm to aid in referrals for navigation at the same time as the PFRC nurse navigators were redesigning their operations. The physician work group automated an algorithm, adapted from the PROACCT score created by researchers in Ontario, which generates a score that is predictive of early acute care use based on a patient’s age, treatment regimen, and whether they have had a recent hospital discharge. They first piloted the algorithm among UNC Lineberger’s hematology patients and published the results in Supportive Care in Cancer. As of August 2020, the algorithm has been adapted for use among the cancer program’s gastrointestinal, thoracic, and malignant hematology patients and incorporated into the PFRC’s standardized referral system, which is used for all other patients. The PFRC nurse navigators triage patients with eligible cancer types to the navigation program based on their risk scores; tumor site-specific clinical nurse navigators call patients with risk scores of 8 or greater, while PFRC nurse or volunteer navigators call patients with scores between 4 and 7. Patients with scores below 4 are not currently referred to any navigator. This streamlined referral process ensures that the appropriate navigators reach the patients most at risk for needing acute care in an organized fashion.