Picture a patient talking to a doctor after being diagnosed with a serious illness. As the doctor discusses treatment plans, prescriptions, and prognosis, the patient’s mind is reeling. Often, the patient’s eyes glaze over and they don’t retain information about the illness or treatment plan.
To combat this and other problems, the Affordable Care Act created a new category of workers to guide patients through the health care process.
The emerging positions include outreach counselors, navigators, patient care coordinators, and others who will educate and guide consumers through all aspects of health care coverage; from insurance enrollment to facilitating treatment and communication between doctors and checking up on patients after treatment.
With about 164,000 new Washington residents enrolled in health insurance through the state’s health care exchange as of the March 31 open enrollment dealine, new patient navigating positions are in need, said Elya Moore, deputy director for the Whatcom Alliance for Health Advancement.
“We are in a crisis,” Moore said. “Navigators are essential. We can’t keep providing health care the way we’ve been providing it. We’ll never meet the demand.”
To fill that need, Whatcom Community College is developing programs to prepare students and health care workers for emerging careers in health care with the help of a $567,500 grant from the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges. The state board awarded the college the grant, called a Hospital Employee Education and Training (HEET) grant, last month.
Whatcom Community College is the lead organization in the grant. Its partner organizations include Edmonds Community College, Seattle Central College, Highline College in Des Moines, Wash., and Clark College in Vancouver, Wash.
Kendra Hodgson, policy associate at the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, said Whatcom Community College received the grant as the lead institution because of the quality of the proposal.
“Whatcom’s proposal was very well received by our panel,” she said. “We’re excited about what they’re looking to tackle.”
The grant is geared toward training current health care workers for new and different rolls, said Cindy Burman-Woods, a workforce projects special director at Whatcom Community College. Patient navigators are the most urgent of those roles.
The navigator position is broad and varied, said Janice Walker, director of Whatcom Community College’s workforce education program, said
“They help patients figure out where to go for care, what places will accept them, what kind of rehabilitative care they need,” Walker said. “They might go with the patient to visit the doctor and help transcribe what the doctor said, or even help [patients] fill out medicare forms.”
A study performed by Accenture at MetroHealth System in Cleveland, found that its patient navigator program reduced costs to the system by reducing cancellations and no-shows, and reducing emergency room visits.
So far, Whatcom Community College representatives have met with and surveyed health care employers. This process has reaffirmed that the industry needs navigators, and helped the college understand what level of skill employers need, Burman-Woods said.
The college is also bringing in a curriculum development specialist to combine several currently existing programs. Some of the partners on the grant, including Clark and Highline Colleges, already have basic curriculum.
“There are a lot of different groups doing different things and we want to pull it together as a whole,” Burman-Woods said. “We don’t want employers to be confused by what different programs are offered. We want them to look at it as more of a standard curriculum.”
When finished, the curriculum will be available to all community colleges in the state, Burman-Woods said.
Whatcom Community College has worked on several HEET grants in the past, starting in 2008. The college developed a simulation to prepare students for the chaos of emergency rooms with a HEET grant in 2012.
In simulations, health care workers practice with mannequins in an environment that recreates the stress of treating multiple patients while phones ring, family members interfere, and everything goes wrong.
Whatcom Community College president Kathi Hiyane-Brown said responding to what its community needs – in this case, more health care workers – is part of the school’s mission.
“It really is about how we become more responsive and supportive to students who need training, and industries that need skilled workers,” Hiyane-Brown said. “Grants really help give us the resources to be able to do it.”