Patient Advocacy

Advancements in health care over the last half century have been truly astonishing, and with the rise of the Information Age, improvements in health care have only accelerated in recent years. While medicine will continue to improve the quality of life for millions, there is a dual threat to ensuring positive patient outcomes in health care.

For all of the advancements in treatments, therapies and the delivery of health care in general, it is undeniable that the system has become significantly more complex and harder to navigate than ever before. As complexity has increased, the amount of time doctors are spending with patients has decreased. For patients, this means they have less time with an expert to help them understand test results, answer questions or discuss treatment options. Even when doctors do take time to visit with their patients, patients typically lack the necessary clinical knowledge to make sense of the information they are being provided. While numerous resources exist online to help patients prepare for a doctor’s visit, ask the right questions, and understand their treatment, the National Patient Safety Foundation finds patients are typically stressed and not always able to ask the questions they should be asking.

Studies continually show health care outcomes are better when the patient is a proactive member of their health care team. Those studies also find individuals identify being involved in the decision making about their care is a top priority. But if individuals are ill-equipped or not in the right frame of mind to ask the questions that will help them be proactive in their care, what is the solution? One answer appears to be patient advocates.

What Is a Patient Advocate?

Patient advocates can fulfill many roles to help individuals proactively manage their health care. The process typically begins with the advocate making a list of everyone involved in the person’s care and all medications the person is taking. Once the individual’s medical history, care team, and medications are understood by the advocate, the advocate will typically attend doctor’s appointments, treatments, and other procedures. In this setting, the patient advocate is an expert set of eyes and ears, carefully listening to the health care provider, taking notes, asking questions and ensuring the patient understands what is being discussed.

Following the appointment, the patient advocate will help coordinate follow-up visits and schedule appointments with specialists. Patient advocates will help their client make an informed decision about treatment options and procedures by helping their client plainly understand what is entailed, what the pros and cons are for each option and what side effects could be.

Some patient advocates will review their client’s medical bills to check for errors, and in some instances, may be able to work with the care provider or insurance company to reduce the out-of-pocket costs incurred by the client.

Who Can Be a Patient Advocate?

There are currently no formal requirements for who can serve as an individual’s patient advocate. A patient advocate can be a family member, a close friend or relative, or even a trusted co-worker. Many hospitals and some assisted living communities provide patient advocates. These advocates are usually social workers, clergy members, or staff who have a clinical background. Increasingly, there are companies stepping forward to provide professional advocacy services.

Regardless of who serves as an individual’s patient advocate, it is important for the advocate to have a few key skills:

  • First, they must have strong communication skills. The patient advocate should be comfortable slowing down a hurried doctor to get them to explain the diagnosis, treatment options, and procedures plainly to the patient.
  • The patient advocate must have a strong attention to detail so they can maintain an accurate record of doctor’s visits, medications, and treatment an individual is receiving.
  • If the patient advocate selected does not have a social work or clinical background, or experience as an advocate, they should have good research skills and a willingness to learn with the client about the diagnosis, the overall implications it has for the patient’s health, and treatment options.

For individuals who simply need routine medical care, a family member or close friend can make a good patient advocate, as their primary role will be attending appointments, taking notes and helping facilitate communication between health care providers and the patient. For individuals who have complex medical conditions or chronic illness, they should consider using an experienced patient advocate.

The Benefits of Having a Patient Advocate

Carolyn M. Clancy, a former director of the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Qualitywrote of the benefits of having a patient advocate:

The benefits of having an advocate are priceless because this person can help you understand your options and give you peace of mind so you can focus on your recovery.

Many of us would not attempt to navigate purchasing a home without the advice and guidance of a realtor. Fewer would consider walking into a courtroom without the expertise of a lawyer, and many Americans have come to rely on a financial planner to help them manage their wealth and safeguard their financial well-being. As the healthcare system continues to evolve, patient advocates will become common. Research is already demonstrating the valuable role a patient advocate plays in improving patient outcomes, and we expect as more research is conducted the health care industry will embrace and empower patient advocates to do more for the individuals they serve.