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What is a patient navigator?

September 18, 2018

Juli Aistars, APRN, TTS, Lung Cancer Patient Navigator

From a cancer diagnosis to the end of treatment, these specially trained medical professionals guide you through the process.

Introducing our Patient Navigator series, which takes an in-depth look at a skilled group of caring people who support the award-winning cancer programs offered at NCH.

Meet Juli Aistars, APRN, TTS, Lung Cancer Patient Navigator at NCH. Juli is so passionate about her job that she started the Pairing Up to Beat Lung Cancer 5K Race/Walk to raise funds for lung cancer patients at NCH who have financial hardships. The fund helps with rent, mortgage, household bills or food while they are undergoing treatment. The event takes place Saturday, November 3 in Arlington Heights.*

What is a Patient Navigator?

As a Patient Navigator, I guide the patient through the cancer care process, from suspicious finding to diagnosis, treatment and through survivorship. It can include patient education, connecting the patient and his or her family with resources and emotional support, removing barriers to diagnosis or treatment, being an advocate for the patient and facilitating communication among the healthcare team. Nothing is outside of a navigator’s role if it helps the patient. I even solve billing issues.

What is your background?

I have a BSN from the University of Illinois, a master’s degree from Rush University, 38 years of experience in oncology nursing (inpatient, radiation oncology, as a navigator for the Prostate Cancer Program and Lung Cancer Program, and as a facilitator for lung screening). I started the Lung Cancer Navigation Program at NCH in 2010. I also started the Smoking Cessation Program at NCH in 2010 along with Mary McNally, R.N. I’ve worked for NCH for more than 18 years.

How long has the position of Patient Navigator been at NCH?

It has been here since the 90s. We started with Breast Cancer Patient Navigators.

How long has it been a position in hospitals in general?

It started in the 80s at a New York hospital with Harold Freeman, M.D.

Why is navigation important?

The healthcare system, and the diagnosis and treatment of cancer is becoming so complex that things fall through the cracks. There are also many barriers to access, especially financial.

What feedback have you received from patients on their experiences with you?

There is so much. Today, after I solved some issues for a male patient, he said, “I am so glad there is someone like you involved. It was reassuring to talk to you on the phone. You really listened. You have no idea how much we appreciate all your help.”

How many patients do you work with on a weekly basis?

I meet weekly with about two to five new lung cancer patients and about 40 patients altogether, including CT lung screening patients, smoking cessation program patients and lung cancer patients in the midst of treatment.

Can you share some history about Patient Navigators at NCH?

Christine Masonick, Breast Program Manager, was the first Breast Cancer Patient Navigator back in the 90s. I was the navigator who expanded the program to prostate in 2007. We recently added a Prostate Cancer Patient Navigator and a Colorectal Cancer Patient Navigator. We are working on getting approval for a Gynecologic Cancer Patient Navigator. Right now, I meet monthly with our Colorectal, Pancreatic, Prostate and Breast Cancer Patient Navigators.

Have you ever experienced cancer or watched a loved one go through cancer treatment?

I have never had cancer. My sister-in-law has uterine cancer.

How did you decide to become a Patient Navigator?

When the position was proposed in 2007, I liked the idea. I have always been a navigator, like all nurses. I went beyond my clinical role years ago by calling patients at home and it was really helpful for them. I was navigating by following patients after discharge even before I was in the position.

Do you work as a team with other cancer specialists?

I am part of a team, and my role is very much dependent on it. I work with medical oncology, radiation oncology, thoracic surgery, staff nurses, radiation therapists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, cardiac rehab, office staff and managers.

How do you feel about your role as a Lung Cancer Patient Navigator?

I found the perfect fit in nursing and healthcare. I have loved every minute of it. It’s much more than a job. My job is worthwhile because of the appreciation I get from the patients and their families, and the people I work with. I have the feeling that I make a difference.

Early detection is key. Lung cancer screening is covered by most insurance companies. Call 847-618-3700 to schedule your screening today. Find out more about the Lung Cancer Program at NCH.

*Sign up for the Pairing Up to Beat Lung Cancer 5K Race. Want to donate? Eat at California Pizza Kitchen on Friday, Sept. 28 and they’ll donate 20 percent of your order to the cause.

Read about Juli in Northwest Quarterly Magazine’s Exceptional Nurses issue.