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Oscar Burkholder
Oscar Burkholder is the MARC's first patient navigator.

Patient navigator:
From front door to final exam, patient navigator guides patients every step of the way

April 2010

After giving birth to a daughter a little over a year ago, Adella Guerrero developed carpal tunnel syndrome and nerve problems in her arms. The pain was so bad that Guerrero had difficulty holding her newborn daughter: "It would get to the point where someone had to grab her from my arms before she fell."

Guerrero, of Laredo, drives five hours round trip to see specialists with UT Medicine San Antonio, the clinical practice of the School of Medicine at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.

She's pleased with her doctors and speaks admiringly of the new Medical Arts & Research Center (MARC) where they work. But the long drive from the Texas-Mexico border means she must schedule doctors' appointments with great precision. "I have three kids," said Guerrero, who works as the health careers coordinator at the Health Science Center's Regional Campus in Laredo. "I don't have time to be coming and going all the time."

That's where Oscar Burkholder comes in.

Burkholder is a patient navigator with the MARC's Musculoskeletal Institute, which helps patients with spine, joint and neuromuscular disorders. It includes health care providers in orthopaedics, neurology, neurosurgery, rheumatology and rehabilitation medicine. In the course of his job, Burkholder schedules appointments with the various providers, verifies insurance and coordinates tests.

A fairly recent concept in medicine, patient navigators help chart a course through an ever-more complex health care system and overcome barriers to prompt treatment. Qualifications for the job vary, and so do the duties, which in some places range from scheduling appointments to arranging for rides or a foreign language interpreter.

Burkholder is the MARC's first patient navigator. A second will be hired this year, and more are planned.

Previously, Burkholder held several positions in ophthalmology, from working the front desk to coordinating referrals. When the patient navigator job came up, he was drawn to it: "It was something I could grow in, and I liked the idea of being with the patient from start to end."

Since he began in the position last spring, Burkholder estimates that he has assisted well over 150 patients. He recently earned a master's degree in health care administration, and he's considering additional education. But he loves his job and wants to continue working in it as he takes classes: "The relationship that you have with the patients - that's the best part."

While Guerrero's visits to San Antonio are a whirlwind, Burkholder schedules her appointments for maximum efficiency, limiting the number of trips she must make to San Antonio.

During one trip, Guerrero had already seen her regular doctors - rehabilitation medicine specialist Daniel L. Santa Maria, M.D., and orthopaedist Fred G. Corley, M.D., - when Burkholder asked if there was anything else he could do for her. Guerrero told him that she really needed to see an ophthalmologist.

Despite the fact that Burkholder is assigned to the Musculoskeletal Institute, which does not include ophthalmology, he managed to get Guerrero in with ophthalmologist Carlos A. Rosende, M.D., that same day. With three successive appointments, Guerrero was able to take care of all her doctors' visits before heading back to Laredo.

"You just don't get that kind of service anywhere," she said. "He's a true-to-life angel."

To schedule an appointment or to refer a patient to a UT Medicine San Antonio physician, call (210) 450-9000. Or, visit www.utmedicine.org for more information.

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