May 17, 2021

UW nurse practitioner takes on new role helping patients with complex cancer cases

Mary Beth Henry, NP, calls her new job the honor of her entire career.

In July 2020, Henry was selected to lead a new Patient Experience Nurse Navigation pilot program at the UW Carbone Cancer Center. The position – funded by the UW Carbone Cancer Center Advisory Board – is part of a broader effort to build programs aimed at providing exceptional patient experiences by promoting consistent and timely access to care, services, clinical trials and more.

With a deep and extensive knowledge of oncology clinical care and services – along with a personal touch – Henry was identified early on as an ideal candidate for the new position.

“Just trying to meet the critical needs of our patients, I think that’s what brought attention to me,” Henry said. “And so, this job was sort of a perfect fit for me. It’s my honor, sincerely, to have this position.”

As a long-time nurse practitioner and advanced practice provider with UW Health, Henry has spent decades helping cancer patients navigate the often complex health care system, from assisting with appointment scheduling to explaining the difference between a radiologist and a radiation oncologist.

But during that time, she also found ways to help patients that weren’t reflected in her job description, including the creation of a fund to provide hotel stays for out-of-town patients who otherwise couldn’t afford them.

For Henry, it’s all about getting to know the patients she works with, and the challenges they might be facing. “People have personal situations, and each patient is a human being,” she said. “There’s a face on each person with a story.”

In the new role, Henry is working with approximately 250 patients with complex cancer cases who enter the system through special referrals. A handful of physician leaders at UW Carbone are able to refer patients to her. Over the two year pilot period, she’ll help these patients – who may have increased needs and find themselves bouncing between doctors and specialties – as they journey from first appointment to post-treatment follow-ups.

“Really, I’m here to help improve access to care,” Henry said.

Part of the job entails much of what she’s already been doing as a nurse practitioner, including helping to write letters to insurance companies for denied testing, working to get someone access to out-of-network care, coordinating appointments for the same day to reduce the amount of travel needed, and helping to find relevant clinical trials for all patients.
However, in her new role, Henry has also embraced other ambitious goals. She hopes to improve response time to referrals and expedite both diagnoses and the development of treatment plans. She also seeks to empower patients to become more involved in their care.
Through this, she hopes to produce a model that can be employed by other nurse navigators to streamline and personalize patient care, something she believes can reduce patient distress and optimize patient outcomes.

In addition, Henry sees herself as an embedded ally not only for patients, but also their caregivers. “A disease often yields two patients, the one with the disease and the one caring for that person,” she said. “We need to take care of both.”

Above all, she wants to be present and available to those who need her.

“I have found that over the years, the single most satisfying thing you can do for a patient is give them direct access to you,” Henry said. “I have always given my phone numbers to pretty much every patient, and many others have my contact information. People are so grateful when they can directly reach a person.”

Because of that, many of her former patients have expressed their gratefulness to her, along with a desire to give back to the doctor or program that took care of them. When individuals want to give back, whether it be financially or otherwise, Henry is there to make connections, inform patients about ongoing research needs, and help patients share their stories with those that cared for them.

“People are really wanting to give to an organization that is producing such awesome results,” Henry said. “We are so grateful, and I always tell people that we will never waste a penny of their money.”

Throughout the pilot program, patient satisfaction scores and other metrics will determine the success of the program, and there is hope this model could be replicated in other departments across UW Health.

But right now, Henry isn’t thinking about numbers, scores or ratings. She’s thinking about what she’s always thought about – how to do right by the patients who are looking to her for help.

“My deepest commitment is to take the best care of those people I can,” Henry said. “It’s so frightening to receive these diagnoses, but I want patients to know that I’m here to help.”