Recognizing that navigating the complex health care system can be tough, a local technical college and a health care provider are creating workers to help patients understand insurance coverage, translate medical jargon and handle other difficulties faced by laypersons.

Chippewa Valley Technical College is starting a new associate degree program in fall to train people to become health navigators, which are advocates for patients to help them understand their medical options.

“A lot of times if you’ve not been in health care, you don’t understand the lingo,” said Shelly Olson, CVTC’s executive dean of health and emergency services.

The new health navigator program includes a mix of existing CVTC health care and general education courses, as well as several new classes to teach specific skills necessary for the job.

The technical college will put students through a two-year program including classes on medical terminology, public health, digital literacy, health insurance, gerontology, professional writing and communications, and ethics of care.

Through that education, health navigators are intended to help people dealing with illness or simply confused at how to handle the intricacies of the health care system.

“It gets tiring when you’re sick to begin with to be that voice for yourself when you don’t understand it to begin with,” Olson said.

In addition to hospitals and clinics, Olson said health navigators could be employed in public health departments, insurance companies and businesses that provide in-home care.

Two years ago, CVTC held a focus group with the area’s major medical providers and discovered a demand for health navigators.

“We found a lot of support from the facilities in the area,” Olson said. “The forecast would be that we’d see an increase in these needed skill sets.”

Count Marshfield Clinic Health System, which has a hospital, cancer center and clinics in Eau Claire, among them.

“We as a health system identified that health care is challenging,” said Todd Diedrich, director of Marshfield Clinic Health System’s patient contact center. “It’s difficult for patients to know who to connect with, where to go.”

Just this month, Marshfield Clinic began its own pilot program with health navigators serving a sampling of the health system’s patients before it is expected to expand and become available to all its patients.

“The goal or objective is to provide outstanding customer service and patient experience through our navigator program,” Diedrich said.

Marshfield Clinic’s health navigators serve as a single point of contact to help make appointments, handle billing, discuss financial assistance possibilities and answer questions related to insurance coverage.

Diedrich noted these new navigators fulfill a separate role from a different program that has long been in place at Marshfield Clinic where nurses help patients navigate their care needs, usually in specific areas such as oncology.

For its new group of health navigators, Diedrich said they were hired for their solid customer service skills and some already had medical training in their background. He expects Marshfield Clinic will be interested in those who will be trained through CVTC’s new program.

CVTC’s health navigator program has a capacity of 24 students, Olson said, and there are still openings for the fall semester. Wisconsin technical colleges in Wausau and Green Bay also offer health navigator programs.

In addition to new students starting their associate degree, Olson said the health navigator program can also be used by people with existing medical or social work backgrounds who want to increase their skill set or pursue a job that doesn’t involve direct patient care. For those with existing education or work experience, Olson noted that CVTC does offer credit for prior learning toward the health navigator degree.

“We can work with people based on their backgrounds,” she said.

The program can be taken in the classroom, online or a mix of both, but a clinical experience is required to get the associate degree.

The health navigator isn’t the only new program starting up in fall at CVTC. Programs to train people in supply chain management and working on natural gas lines will also begin then.

Meanwhile, CVTC is phasing out two other programs due to waning demand. Shifts in student interest and job openings are prompting the college to wind down its organizational leadership associate degree program. Classes will continue for current students to finish that program.

A one-year technical diploma for pharmacy technicians is also being discontinued as that credential is no longer required by pharmacies as a condition to be hired.

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