Northwell Health Launches Cancer Care Direct

Northwell Health Launches Cancer Care Direct

Knowing the healthcare system is complex and often creates anxiety for patients newly diagnosed with cancer, the Northwell Health Cancer Institute  launched Cancer Care Direct, a comprehensive program to connect patients with clinical registered nurse navigators who can provide expert guidance to patients and caregivers from diagnosis to treatment to survivorship. The program will be offered at Northwell’s ten cancer centers in communities across Long Island, Queens, Manhattan, Staten Island, and Westchester.

“As an integrated health system, Northwell’s Cancer Care Direct program can truly navigate patients through the entire continuum of cancer care and other medical disciplines,” says Richard Barakat, MD, physician-in-chief and director of the Northwell Health Cancer Institute, and senior vice president of cancer services. “A cancer diagnosis is devastating. We want to provide our patients with every level of treatment and support they need, and our trained nurse navigators will be there every step of the way. We want to help alleviate stress so patients can focus on getting well.”

In January 2023, Northwell Health Cancer Institute piloted Cancer Care Direct to its 83,000 employees across its health system, offering staff and their family members access to nurse navigators. The Northwell Cancer Care Direct navigation program provides expert guidance in nearly every type of cancer. Within the first two months, Cancer Care Direct received over 100 referrals.

Nurse navigators are the ultimate patient advocates. When Devyani Kamdar was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer in November 2022, she was shocked because no one in her family had had cancer. The 69-year-old accounting clerk was overwhelmed.

“I went numb and had trouble processing the information,” says Kamdar, who lives on Long Island with her husband of 42 years. “My family doctor referred me to Northwell, and I was glad to be connected with a nurse navigator to help me with everything.” 

Maria Jose Conway, RN, nurse navigator for Ms. Kamdar, met her and her husband for the first time at the end of November at an initial consult with a breast surgeon at the R. J. Zuckerberg Cancer Center in New Hyde Park. Trained as an oncology nurse, Ms. Conway attended the meeting with the surgeon at her patient’s request and coordinated social work meetings. She arranged an appointment with a medical oncologist to set up chemotherapy sessions. Ms. Kamdar has had several rounds of treatment and will have breast surgery to remove her tumors in the coming months.

“I try to prioritize steps for patients to make things less stressful for them,” says Conway. “Handling a wide range of logistics is essential, but it’s helpful for patients to talk with someone when they are frightened,” Conway says she will follow Ms. Kamdar through her entire cancer journey. 

“I’m thankful for Maria. She makes my life easier,” Kamdar says. “I call her to save time and stress. She puts her heart and soul into her job and always has a big smile on her face.”

At Cancer Care Direct, nurse navigators guide care so that patients can focus on their healing. Personalized services they provide include:

  • securing timely appointments for all specialties as well as imaging appointments
  • attending doctor’s appointments or arranging telehealth visits
  • helping with paperwork, connecting patients to clinical trials, assessing for pain management
  • palliative care
  • social work
  • physical therapy
  • behavioral health and accessing support services such as nutrition counseling, financial resources, transportation, and survivorship programs

review of 29 patient navigation studies showed that patient navigation reduced the time to diagnosis and treatment, improved treatment adherence, improved patient quality of life and improved patient knowledge regarding their cancer, and helped improve communication with their healthcare team.

Before creating Cancer Care Direct, the Cancer Institute offered navigation to breast cancer patients in January 2022, says Rita Mercieca, RN, senior vice president and chief administrator at the Northwell Health Cancer Institute.

The launch of the breast navigation program demonstrated the need to replicate this type of service for patients being treated in all cancer specialties, with 500 patients being navigated in the first year. Over the months, Mercieca and her team worked with chairs of cancer departments, physicians, and others to develop the program. 

Currently, ten dedicated nurse navigators are on staff, who speak five languages to focus on key regional patient populations. Those include English, Spanish, Mandarin, Bengali, and Vietnamese, with a language interpreter service available for others.

“Our promise to patients at any Northwell cancer center is if you have cancer and would like a navigator to help you through any part of your journey, we will connect you with a clinical nurse navigator,” says Mercieca. “We strive to not only provide our patients with the most advanced cancer treatments but also provide patients with concierge service and support during one of the most challenging times in their lives.”

Since early 2022 nurse navigators have helped over 1,200 patients in various cancer specialties. Karen Kostroff, MD, chief of breast surgery at Northwell Health, was involved in developing the health system’s nurse navigation system. “Breast cancer has been a multidisciplinary disease for decades, so it’s natural to have a team in place,” says Dr. Kostroff.  

“Northwell created the larger navigation program because of the great need in the region to serve people with cancer both physically and mentally, blending caring and quality outcomes.”