Drug access navigator and dedicated oncology pharmacy team enhancing patient care in Yarmouth

Pharmacy team who works with oncology at Yarmouth Regional Hospital.
Pharmacy team who works with oncology at Yarmouth Regional Hospital. Back (L-R): Donna Braun, Nikki Kokocki, Marcel Surette, Maggie Arenburg, Josee Soucie; Front: (L-R): Angele Scott, Samantha Huntley

Pharmacy has always played a critical role in ensuring the quality and safety of the cancer treatment patients receive, but the evolution of cancer drug offerings over the last few years has resulted in an even greater reliance on their expertise and the creation of new roles and responsibilities.

The role of the drug access navigator is one example. The role was created a few years ago at the QEII Cancer Centre to support patients in accessing medication funding for oral cancer drugs. Now, as part of the enhancements to cancer care for Yarmouth area residents, Yarmouth Regional Hospital also has a drug access navigator.

Drug access navigators work with insurance providers on behalf of patients to minimize their out-of-pocket drug costs by identifying and leveraging all resources. This includes private insurers and family and seniors pharmacare as well as other drug assistance programs. They help patients determine which program(s) they may qualify for, help enroll them, determine if there are compassionate programs and advocate for drug coverage. They work closely with many members of the care team including nurses, oncologists, social workers, cancer patient navigators, drug representatives, patient support programs and community pharmacies. The value of the position comes from the specialty knowledge in being able to find these programs and resources.

“Since starting a little more than a year ago, I’ve been receiving between 20 and 25 referrals each month, so the need is there,” said Samantha (Sam) Huntley, drug access navigator, Yarmouth community oncology. “I like being able to take away a patient’s worry about how they will pay for medications and ensure they get the best treatment available. It also feels good to know I’m freeing up nurses’ and physicians’ time so they can focus on their patients’ clinical needs.”

Huntley works half time as drug access navigator and the other half as a pharmacy practice assistant (PPA). She also works closely with two other pharmacy colleagues dedicated to cancer care, another enhancement to support more cancer care closer to where Yarmouth area residents live. Until Fall 2021 there were no dedicated oncology pharmacy resources.

Josee Soucie is the clinical pharmacist responsible for oncology services. There is now a full-time pharmacist service dedicated to the Yarmouth cancer clinic. Pharmacists used to spend a half day in oncology and a half day in inpatient services.

“It wasn’t enough,” she said. “I worried about patient safety. Now we have three people from our pharmacy team dedicated to supporting cancer patients each day. The larger team still supports us, but having dedicated staff means more comprehensive, efficient, and safer cancer care for patients.”

In addition to Soucie and Huntley, the oncology pharmacy team includes one to two pharmacy practice assistants dedicated to mixing chemotherapy, checking and maintaining inventory. Each has specific responsibilities: Soucie reviews all prescriptions doctors write against other medications patients may be taking to ensure they work together. She checks intravenous chemotherapy drug orders for safety, efficacy and appropriate dosing, and is in close communication with nurses and the pharmacy practice assistants, who mix the chemotherapy.

She provides advice and education to patients, answers questions patients and doctors may have, and is an important resource for community pharmacists. In addition to checking the safety and appropriateness of the chemotherapy order, she, with the PPA manages the chemo drug inventory and ensures proper storage and stability.

“We are very busy,” said Soucie. “With the growing number of patients, newer more complex medications, aging population and often patients who require more care, these additional resources are necessary to continuing providing safe and sustainable cancer services.”