THURSDAY, Oct. 11, 2012 (HealthDay News) -- A type of service called "patient navigation" -- which helps people cope with an illness, deal with health insurance questions and schedule appointments -- may reduce delays in the detection of breast cancer, a new study has found.
Suspicious breast lumps were diagnosed nearly four times sooner when women were assisted by patient navigators, according to the study. The use of these patient navigation services could lead to an increase in the number of cancerous tumors that are diagnosed before they become more difficult to treat, the findings suggested.
"The time savings really paid off for the women in this study," study author Heather Hoffman, an associate professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services, said in a university news release. "A quicker diagnosis of breast cancer often translates to faster treatment and might give women a better shot at survival."
The study included more than 2,600 women with a suspicious breast lump who were examined at one of nine hospitals or clinics in the Washington, D.C. area. About half of the women received navigation services, which helped them deal with a lack of insurance, child-care issues and other problems that might prevent them from scheduling a follow-up exam. Meanwhile, the rest of the women were only given standard advice to follow up on the lump that was found.
The researchers then calculated the amount of time that lapsed between when the suspicious lumps were found and when the women received a diagnosis.
The study revealed that patient navigation helped women receive their diagnosis much sooner. Women who received these services had an average diagnosis time of just 25 days, compared to 42 days for those who did not have access to a patient navigator.
In addition, among women who needed a biopsy, those who received help from a patient navigator got their diagnosis in about 27 days, vs. 58 days for those who did not get navigation services, the results showed.
The researchers noted that uninsured patients often have trouble finding a doctor willing to treat them. Yet, in the study, uninsured women who received navigation services were more likely to get a quicker diagnosis than uninsured women who didn't have the help of a patient navigator.
Delays in cancer diagnosis may lead to potentially dangerous delays in treatment. Complicating matters, Hoffman noted, women who find a lump in their breast are often overwhelmed by fear, which may prevent them from following up on their medical care as soon as possible.
"Navigators follow up with women and encourage them to go on for additional tests until they get an answer either one way or the other," said Hoffman. "With help, many women are able to move forward to get the care they need."
Each year in the United States, 40,000 women die due to breast cancer, and Washington, D.C. has one of the highest breast cancer death rates in the nation, the study authors pointed out in the news release. They suggested that more research is needed to determine if women in other cities and rural areas would also benefit from patient navigation services.
The study was published in the October issue of Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention.
The U.S. National Cancer Institute provides more information on patient navigators.