By Regina White, RN, MS, OCN®

Technology is great when you get it. But when you don’t, it can be a real burden, and an extra burden is the last thing a patient with cancer needs. Fortunately, at the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, FL, we’ve found a program that not only helps our nurses and our patients with technology, but it also brings our older patient population together with the positive energy of younger members. 

The Digital Sherpa Program from the Patient Empowerment Network (PEN)—a nonprofit, patient advocacy organization—puts tech-savvy college students in a mentorship role with not-so-tech-savvy patients. Whether it’s using the internet to get information about their diseases or social media to connect with others, students teach patients about technology in a variety of ways. Sherpas also help patients better understand how to use their devices, and they are available to answer questions and troubleshoot digital issues that our patients may encounter.

The Need for Sherpas

As technology advances and becomes more affordable, it’s more and more prevalent in oncology care. However, many older adult patients with cancer don’t have basic internet and social media skills, making it difficult for them to access information about their illnesses or make connections with, and get support from, other patients and advocacy groups. At Moffitt, our patients are exposed to a variety of technology services, including an entertainment, education, orientation, and training program used in every patient room.

Unfortunately, patients weren’t using the program because they simply didn’t understand it. Further complicating matters, the nurses—who had become the default technology coaches—didn’t always have the time or tknowledge to answer tech-related questions or give comprehensive tutorials. When used as intended, technology can be a powerful tool to enhance patient care, but patients need time to learn, gain experience, and receive reinforcement to get the full benefit.

How Sherpas Help

The goal of the Digital Sherpa Program is to improve health literacy among patients with cancer by providing access to and training on digital technology. When the opportunity arose to bring in volunteers to help patients with technology, we jumped to it. Giving patients the opportunity to use technology to help them make more informed health decisions can lead to better care, satisfaction, and quality of life for everyone involved.

Sherpas are usually paired with patients within 24–48 hours of admittance, and they begin orienting patients to the tech world and how it can help through the treatment journey. Sherpas also show patients how to search for information about their diseases, access their patient portal, and set up social media and share pictures—a great way to create connections with other patients, advocacy communities, and their family members who aren’t able to visit. Our sherpas are also available for outpatient services, such as filling out patient questionnaires.

How the Program Was Implemented

PEN created the Digital Sherpa Program to fill a need for technology support in the patient community. Through our director of volunteer services, Moffitt implemented the Sherpa program in 2018. Because our digital patient education resource wasn’t being fully used, our institution thought the Sherpas could help.

It’s enabled our patient population to better understand technology, how it works as a healthcare tool, and how it could enhance their quality of life while navigating their cancer journey. Thankfully, Moffitt is located on the University of South Florida campus where there’s no shortage of volunteers willing to help. Our student volunteers were all very impressive, and it was nice seeing their dedication and interest in helping patients.

Our program currently has about 25 sherpas, many of whom have been touched by cancer in some way or are interested in a career in the medical field. It can be a great way for them to dip their toes into the world of oncology and patient-centered care.

How Patients and Providers Responded

Nurses are benefitting from having onsite tech experts that assist patients, which allows them to focus on other elements of patient care. One nurse even asked if we could have the digital sherpas all day, every day, because they’ve enhanced the experience for the patients so much. For our patients, the sherpas have successfully provided a path to empowerment and self-care.

Other healthcare professionals have taken note of the program: during a recent inspection at our facility, we received feedback that explaining in-house technology to our patients through the Digital Sherpa Program was a unique way of using volunteers.

In the future, we plan to expand the number of days and hours that sherpas will be available to patients, and we want to create a Sherpa Help Desk that patients can call for immediate assistance.