Patient navigators may improve rates of comprehensive cancer screening among populations of patients who are not likely to undergo recommended cancer screenings. Such patients, mostly from low-income and ethnic minority groups, were found to be more likely to adhere to cancer-screening guidelines when assisted by patient navigators.1

“These findings demonstrate how effective patient navigators can be for patients who, for a variety of reasons, encounter obstacles to receiving cancer screening,” said Sanja Percac-Lima, MD, PhD, physician leader for cancer outreach at the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) Center for Community Health Improvement, Boston, and lead author of the study. “Health disparities pose a major challenge to low-income and ethnic minority patients, and our study suggests a proactive approach may help increase their chances of receiving the care they need.”

A population-based information technology system allowed the researches to search across 18 MGH primary care practices and identify 1612 patients (673 men and 975 women; median age, 57 years) at-risk of not completing recommended cancer screenings and also overdue for breast, cervical, and/or colorectal cancer screening. At-risk status was based on a previous missed appointment and their primary language not being English.

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For the study, 792 of the 1612 patients were randomly assigned a patient navigator who provided intense outreach and guidance on recommended screenings. The navigators contacted patients in their own language, educated and encouraged them, arranged for transportation, and accompanied them to visits, as well as helped overcome any other barriers to screening.

Nearly one-third (32%) of the patients connected with a patient navigator completed at least 1 overdue cancer screening, compared with 18% of patients in the control group.

“Patient navigators provide a critical bridge between patients and caregivers that enhances and improves care,” said Percac-Lima, who is an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. “By employing these types of tactics, we can address critical health disparities for at-risk communities.”


1. Percac-Lima S, Ashburner JM, Zai AH, et al. Patient navigation for comprehensive cancer screening in high-risk patients using a population-based health information technology system: a randomized clinical trial. JAMA Intern Med. 2016 Jun 6. doi: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2016.0841. [Epub ahead of print]