Health Report: Advocates Can Help Ensure Best Possible Patient Care
Illness, pain or just the shock of being diagnosed with a serious medical condition can hinder patients’ ability to understand their treatment options or make decisions about their care.
Patients may benefit by having another person by their side to serve as a liaison with caregivers and help ensure that the best possible care is delivered.
Known as “patient advocates,” people who support and represent patients can range from trusted relatives and friends to formally trained professionals. Professional patient advocates may include physicians and nurses who offer their services for a fee, as well as individuals who have completed training programs in patient advocacy through educational institutions.
“It helps if the patient advocate has a medical background, but it isn’t absolutely necessary,” said Davis Cracroft, M.D., medical director of Scripps Mercy Hospital. “The most important factor for an effective patient advocate is to be well informed and up to date about the health care issues relevant to the patient’s case.”
A great deal of information about specific medical conditions and treatment options is available through trusted, credible Internet sites. Informed advocates can help patients thoroughly understand their diagnosis, explain the benefits and downsides to treatments, and know what to expect in the long term.
Advocates may also help patients navigate the myriad appointments and treatments that serious medical conditions may require, so organization and efficiency are important. They may schedule and accompany patients to appointments, take notes and ask questions, and follow up on home care instructions.
It is especially important for very ill or injured patients to have an ally who can review treatment plans, clarify information and help make critical decisions. Advocates also may provide personal support and encouragement to patients, and help ease the anxiety that often comes with health problems.
It’s crucial that advocates feel comfortable speaking up if they have questions or feel the need to confirm a diagnosis, medications or surgery recommendations. Medical errors can occur in even the most careful environments, and asking the right questions may help prevent them. To that end, patient advocates need to have good communication skills as well as the “people” skills to interact assertively yet respectfully with caregivers, and work as part of the health care team.
In especially complex cases, patients may want to consider hiring a professional advocate to oversee their care. Individuals, organizations and agencies offer individual patient advocacy services, either as volunteers or for a fee. Many have backgrounds in medicine, nursing and social work; others may have served as advocates for family members and now offer their services professionally.
A new state law that took effect on Jan. 1 underscores the important role that patient advocates play. Under the law, when patients are admitted to a hospital they now have the right to designate a caregiver and a hospital must inform the designated caregiver of discharge plans and any continuing care a patient needs, including counseling about medication and how to perform tasks such as cleaning wounds and moving disabled patients from a wheelchair to a commode or bed. When long-term care is required, hospitals must provide information on community resources that can help with referrals.
Also, several university-affiliated programs have recently started offering certification programs in patient advocacy, but to date, there are no recognized standards for such a credential.
In general, the more experienced and educated an advocate is, the greater the cost. It may be money well-spent to have an objective, trained professional looking out for the best interests of the patient. Effective advocates can facilitate more successful interaction between doctor and patient, and most busy physicians appreciate having someone available to help patients better understand their care.
For more information, visit scripps.org/KUSI or call 858-240-5075.