How to Become a Patient Navigator

Patient navigation is a new and emerging field which has come about because of the complexity, inefficiency and cost of the current American health care system. Could this be your second career?

By Elisabeth Russell

I started my company,, after 22  years in the U.S. State Department (see the Second Acts article in More's March 2011 issue) and frequently get inquiries from people who want to become a health advocate, medical mentor, or cancer coach.  Here is some of what I've learned about how to get into this line of business:

As an emerging industry, there is no clear definition or standard training. Many hospitals in the U.S. and Canada employ navigators to help patients manage their hospital stays. The National Institutes of Health is funding several patient navigator pilot projects across the U.S. in underserved and minority areas. There are a few people scattered across the United States doing navigation in their own communities.   There are a couple of companies in the U.S. who sell advocacy services to large corporations as an employee benefit.
I know only of one training program/certification under development at the University of Miami due to launch in September 2009. I believe that Sarah Lawrence College offers a Master’s degree in patient advocacy (but it is theoretical, not hands-on).  The Denver hospital mentioned in the March 29 Parade article offers some training.

Most of us who do this work come to it through our own experiences dealing with the health care or elder care system (whether as a patient, caregiver, nurse, social worker, etc.) There is no specific background or education that is required. I have found that a passion for helping others, good research, communication, interpersonal and organizational skills as well as the ability to be creative in finding resources and solving problems are what it takes.

I am currently talking with possible navigators from across the U.S. They will be trained more formally at a later date, but for now, I am evaluating each person individually on what skills and experience (professional, personal and life experience) they can offer. I think that collectively, we need to get started to define this industry moving forward.


My goal is that Patient Navigator, LLC will be the company that creates the standards and leads the way.I am planning a “virtual meeting” with the nearly 40 people who have contacted me since the publication of the Parade magazine article March 29.   To learn more, please contact us here.

First Published March 1, 2011

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