Dietitian as Navigator: A Winning Combination

By Kelay Trentham, MS, RDN, CSO

Compass pointing at answers-SMALLIn cancer care, the use of patient navigators has grown substantially over the past decade. In 2012, the American College of Surgeons Commission on Cancer added Standard 3.1 requiring that accredited programs have a patient navigation process in place.

While the navigator’s role and responsibilities may vary from institution to institution, clinical navigators typically:

  • assess patients’ clinical, financial, spiritual, and other needs;
  • ensure patients are referred for appropriate supportive care services such as financial counselors, social workers or psychologists, palliative care, and rehab services;
  • provide needed patient education on their disease and its treatment;
  • assist patients in overcoming barriers to care; and
  • assist in discharge and advanced care planning.

Given this list, it may come as no surprise that nurses and social workers are often in navigator roles. Some programs may also employ non-clinical navigators who assist patients with some services, as is the case with the American Cancer Society’s resource navigators, who educate patients about ACS and other community resources. Patient navigation often involves a variety of multidisciplinary team members, with nurse or social work navigators referring patients to physical therapists or dietitians for their specialized care, for example.

For diagnoses that require intensive nutritional support, such as head and neck or esophageal cancer, a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) can effectively serve as a patient’s principal navigator, as these patients may see the RDN as often, if not more often, than other team members. In initial medical and radiation oncology consults, these patients are often told that they will need a feeding tube. For many patients, the idea of having or using a feeding tube can be frightening and overwhelming. Prior to receiving feeding tube education, patients may have many concerns such as that the tube is very large and cumbersome, how it might impede normal daily activities, that tube placement is permanent, or that they or their caregiver(s) won’t be able to learn how to use it. Meeting with an RDN for immediate education can allay any fears and concerns about this component of their care plan and reduce distress. In addition, the RDN can reassure patients and caregivers that he or she is available to assist with any questions about using the tube throughout the course of treatment. Further, the RDN navigator can assure the patient that their experience and training places them in a unique position to best advocate for the patient with respect to nutrition support issues.

The RDN’s knowledge base makes this member of the cancer care team an excellent fit for ensuring coordination of care with a patient’s home infusion agency. An RDN navigator can work with the medical team to ensure proper documentation so that enteral feedings are covered by insurance, assist patients with locating donated tube-feeding supplies and formula in the event of limited or a lack of coverage, and work with pharmacy services to get medications converted to crushable or liquid forms for use in feeding tubes. In addition, the RDN navigator would continue to see the patient regularly during the transition from tube feeding back to an oral diet, coordinating care with the speech therapist or surgeon as needed. For example, after esophagectomy, patients experience significant changes in oral diet tolerance and may require considerable education and coaching to adapt to their “new normal.”

Much like the nurse or social worker navigator, the RDN would refer patients to other disciplines when needed, such as to an RN for education about port placement, to a social worker or financial counselor for financial concerns, or to rehabilitation services (physical and/or lymphedema therapy). For some patients, intensive nutrition support may be required from before treatment until long after treatment is completed, making it a central component of care that an RDN is well equipped to navigate.

For cancer patients requiring intensive nutritional support, having an RDN serve as the patient’s navigator can be a winning combination, improving care and the patient experience.


ACCC member Kelay E. Trentham, MS, RDN, CSO, is a past chair of the Oncology Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. She is currently an oncology dietitian at MultiCare Regional Cancer Center in Tacoma, WA.

For more, learn about a weekly outpatient nutrition clinic for head and neck cancer patients developed by 2014 ACCC Innovator Award winner Beaumont Cancer Institute, Royal Oak, MI.

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