The mere mention of the word cancer is enough to make anyone shudder. It immediately evokes fears of chemo, radiation, and an uncertain future. Patients and their families are too often overwhelmed by a test abnormality or disease diagnosis to even know where to go from there.
That’s where Gina Null comes on the scene.
Null serves as the “Patient Health Navigator” for Mercy Fort Smith’s Breast Center. Her job is to walk patients through the screening, detection and treatment phases to help them understand each step and to provide answers for their many questions.
“Getting a cancer diagnosis is paralyzing to some patients and their families,” explained Null. “My job is to take them by the hand and lead them through the process.”
And that’s exactly what she works to accomplish. From the moment a patient receives word that she has an abnormal mammogram or test, Null is dispatched to help her understand the course she is about to take toward obtaining a diagnosis and possible treatment plan.
Null serves as the single point-of-contact for her patients. She works as their advocate and assists in answering questions regarding care and insurance. Null also helps by scheduling appointments for her patients with the appropriate specialists, oncologists and surgeons.
As an advanced nurse practitioner, Null is able to order mammograms, biopsies and perform clinical breast exams, often cutting down the time it takes for patients to receive an official diagnosis.
“Right now, it’s not unheard of for it to take three to four weeks to for a woman to get a diagnosis,” explained Null. “That’s a long time to worry and wonder. It’s our goal to get them from screening to diagnosis in one week whenever possible.”
One of the most critical aspects of her job is the emotional support that Null provides to her patients and their families. From helping them determine a plan of action, to cheering them on, to simply being an ear to listen, Null navigates patients through the ups and downs that come with any cancer battle.
“Cancer can be terrifying and there is so much to juggle,” said Null. “I am there to support them, in whatever way they need, so they can make the most informed decision possible.”
Null loves her work and is proud of the care she is able to give her patients. With more than 26 years experience in nursing, she understands how the healthcare system works. She guides patients through insurance paperwork and looks for resources to assist those who have no means to pay for mammograms or treatment.
“One of my goals in this job is to help more women get diagnosed early,” said Null. “Cancer found at stage zero or one is 98% curable. There is no reason that women in this area should not be able to get a mammogram.”
The Patient Health Navigator program is all part of an expansion of Mercy’s women’s services. The hospital’s Breast Center is undergoing a $1.5 million renovation that will include new, state-of-the-art detection equipment. Housed within the Women’s Center of the Mercy Medical Building (formerly the Centers of Excellence), the facility will include MRI and ultrasound systems designed to produce in-depth cancer screening images.
Mercy’s new automated whole breast ultrasound system is the first in the region. It offers automated breast ultrasound with 3D reconstruction to provide higher quality images for asymptomatic women with dense breast tissue or abnormal mammograms. The equipment will be particularly helpful for screening younger women, patients with implants, and those having a family history of breast cancer.
The center will also include a new breast MRI imaging system with biopsy capabilities. The MRI will provide physicians with advanced imaging, key in detecting tumors and lesions that are often difficult to see in standard mammograms or ultrasounds.
From a business standpoint, the PHN service and the expansion of its breast cancer services, allows Mercy to retain patients for multiples facets of the detection and treatment process. Many patients now requiring higher-definition screenings are forced to travel to Northwest Arkansas, Little Rock or even out-of-state to receive the screenings they need.
“The expansion of our services here means that patients can stay close to home for their procedures,” said Null. “For some patients, they simply can’t afford to travel that far for treatment. Some can’t spare the time from work or simply pay for the gas or hotel to travel hours for medical care. This will help them get the care they need right here at home.”
The new Breast Center is scheduled to open in December 2013.
Response to the PHN program has been positive, prompting Mercy officials to consider adding the service to other centers. Since beginning in June, Null has worked with approximately 90 patients and counseled or advised nearly 250 patients and family members over the phone.
“The navigation program may expand to other areas, including other forms of cancer,” said Laura Keep, Mercy Media Relations. “This has served as a sort of pilot program and we may see it grow to include Patient Health Navigators in different centers of the hospital.”