Navigation Caseload Quandary?

Learn about 2017 ACCC Innovator Award winner USA Mitchell Cancer Institute’s homegrown Oncology Navigation Acuity Tool.

By Rev. Diane Baldwin, RN, OCN, CBCN, and Meredith Jones, MS, BSN, RN

FinalSealUnfortunately, nurse navigation services are typically non-revenue generating, necessitating a cost/benefit evaluation of these services for many programs. To justify nurse navigation in this new era of value-based care, we must define appropriate caseload volumes through risk stratification, and determine how best to allocate nurse navigation time and resources among those caseloads.

How Best to Measure & Define Acuity?
Acuity tools have been used in healthcare for decades and have proven successful as a means of determining staffing needs, improving patient care, and controlling costs.  Most acuity tools score patients on a scale of specific attributes. For nurse navigation programs, an acuity tool can be used to determine caseloads and aid in more efficient nurse navigator caseload management.

At USA Mitchell Cancer Institute, our nurse navigators, known as Clinical Care Coordinators, maintain a caseload of approximately 175 patients. However, as we identified more patients needing navigation services, we recognized the need for an acuity tool specifically for caseload management.

As we researched acuity tools, we found limited options related to oncology nurse navigation. Each of the tools we identified was specific to a facility, and was either used to determine overall staffing or focused specifically on the amount of time spent with patients.  We believed that a more generalized tool, including more patient factors, was needed to accurately determine patient acuity. Therefore, the USA Mitchell Cancer Institute began developing an Oncology Navigation Acuity Tool, universally designed to benefit our practice, while also allowing for use and adaptation by other cancer programs.

More Than Just a Number
USA Mitchell Cancer Institute’s goal was to develop a tool that measures a patient’s acuity through a holistic lens. As cancer care providers know, each patient’s navigation needs depend on a variety of factors. Our Oncology Navigation Acuity Tool considers 11 factors that we identified as directly correlating with patient resource utilization and, therefore, acuity level.  Each factor is reviewed individually to determine the acuity score, placing less emphasis on cancer type and stage, and more emphasis on overall patient context. For example, two patients with the same type and stage of cancer, receiving the same treatment, may present with different comorbidities and levels of family support, resulting in two very different acuity scores.

An inherit weakness in most acuity tools is that the “score” assigned to the patient determines overall acuity. However, we know that our patients are more than just a number.  Standardized tools often fail to identify important elements needed to address individual patient needs. Therefore, our Oncology Navigation Acuity Tool includes a 12th factor in determining a patient’s acuity: The clinical assessment of the nurse navigator.  This factor is essential to assessing the “whole patient” and our aim of providing holistic care.  Our nurse navigators use the 11 factors of Oncology Navigation Acuity Tool as a guide to assess the acuity of the patient and combine this with their overall clinical assessment, for a final acuity score.  Ultimately, our nurse navigators, may elect to change the acuity level based on their assessment of the individual patient.

Putting the Tool to Work
The Oncology Navigation Acuity Tool allows us to easily assess the needs of each navigated patient prior to caseload allocation and to quickly determine the level of navigation the patient will need. The tool has also guided managerial decisions to adjust caseloads based on acuity rather than patient count alone.  Further, we’ve utilized this tool for both quality and process improvement to study the varied needs of patients among the acuity levels, and to determine the effect of accurately navigated patients on system utilization and cost.

In our presentation at the ACCC 34th National Oncology Conference, October 18-20, in Nashville, TN, we’ll share more on how using this low-cost, simple to implement tool has resulted not only in a cost-effective, efficient means of refining navigation utilization, but also in the delivery of more personalized, comprehensive, improved quality of care for our navigated patients.

We look forward to seeing you in Nashville!


Rev. Diane Baldwin, RN, OCN, CBCN, is Manager, Quality Assurance, and Meredith Jones, MS, BSN, RN, is Director, Quality Management, at the USA Mitchell Cancer Institute.  

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *