If you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, you will interact with a number of different members of the health care team at various times during treatment. When you walk into a doctor’s office, hospital, or cancer center, you may encounter nurses, physician assistants, social workers, doctors—the list goes on. In the Spotlight On series, we talk with some of these health care professionals to learn more about their jobs and the role they play in providing high-quality cancer care.
Patient educators help inform patients and family members to make educated decisions about their care. Here, Donna M. Branson explains this profession. She has been working in cancer education for the past 29 years. She is the Director of Patient and Public Education at Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) at the University of Utah where she oversees the activities of 3 programs: Cancer Learning Center, Community Outreach and Prevention Education, and Patient Navigation. She was also the 2016 Chair of the Cancer Patient Education Network.
1. How do patient educators help people with cancer?
Donna Branson (DB): Patient educators answer any questions that patients and family members might have about the cancer type, treatment, and potential side effects. This information helps them work more effectively with their health care team. In addition, patient educators can refer patients to resources within the hospital or the community.
However, patient educators don’t replace the health care team, and they don’t offer medical advice.
2. What kind of training, education, and certification does a patient educator need?
DB: Patient educators come from various professional backgrounds. These include nurses, social workers, health educators, medical librarians, patient navigators, case managers, and other health professionals.
At Huntsman Cancer Institute’s Cancer Learning Center, where I work, our patient educators are health educators. This means they have a Bachelor’s degree in health education or health promotion. Some of our health educators are also Certified Health Education Specialists.
3. Describe the journey of a patient working with a patient educator.
DB: At Huntsman Cancer Institute’s Cancer Learning Center, patient educators greet patients and family members who walk through the door and ask how they can help.
If the person has questions, the educator answers them and provides relevant resources. And the patient educator is trained to ask questions that identify which information and resources will help most.
Patients often comment about how nice it is to talk with us in the Cancer Learning Center; it’s a warm, relaxing environment where they don’t feel rushed. Because the clinic environment is so busy, patients sometimes hesitate to ask all of their questions. Our goal is for the patient and family to leave feeling more informed and better prepared to make educated decisions about their care.
At our center, we also answer patient questions by telephone, mail, email, text, and live chat on our website. In fact, our staff answers questions from people throughout the United States and the world.
4. How did you become a patient educator?
DB: I have been a patient educator for 29 years. My first job out of college was with the National Cancer Institute’s Cancer Information Service as a cancer information specialist. Before starting the job, I didn’t know anything about cancer, but I knew I wanted to help people. I quickly discovered how rewarding it was to help people understand what was happening to them. That enabled them to be active participants in their care.
When people hear that they have cancer, they can feel scared and overwhelmed. As a result, they often aren’t able to process all the information the doctor and nurses communicate. That’s why it’s so important to meet with a patient educator who can explain hard medical terms and answer questions about cancer and treatments.
5. How can I find a patient educator?
DB: Many cancer centers have patient libraries or learning centers with staff to help answer questions. If your cancer center doesn’t have one, ask your doctor if someone on the medical team could spend time with you to answer all of your questions. If not, consider contacting the National Cancer Institute’s Cancer Information Service. Information specialists can answer questions by phone or live chatting through the website. They may even point you to local resources. Cancer.Net also provides an Information Line, which can be reached by phone (888-651-3038) or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
6. Are patient educator services covered by health insurance?
DB: At our center, all patient education services are provided free of charge. This could differ at other cancer centers, so please ask in advance. And see the options for free services listed in the answer above.
7. Do I need a patient educator?
DB: If you have any questions about your cancer type, treatment, or ways to cope with the disease, then yes, you need a patient educator.
8. What should I look for in a patient educator?
DB: Search for someone who is kind, caring, and knows a lot about cancer. Someone who will answer all of your questions and make sure you understand the answers. Someone who asks a lot of questions so that they can provide you with the best information for your situation.
Moreover, a good patient educator will ask you how you learn best. For example, do you prefer reading, listening, watching a video, or a combination of these methods?
9. Will my doctor or other health care team members refer or recommend a patient educator?
DB:Possibly. However, if you weren’t referred to a patient educator, that doesn’t mean your cancer center doesn’t have one. Don’t be afraid to ask, and remember patient educators have many different titles and backgrounds. Bottom line—make sure you find someone you trust to help you find the information and resources you need for your cancer journey. Knowledge is power.