Where Do Patient Advocates Get Their Education or Certification?

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classroomMy email inbox each week finds many questions that relate to health advocates’ education, or the availability of certification.  There are three general questions I am asked:

  1. One of the most frequent questions I get comes from newbies – someone who is just thinking about becoming a patient advocate, maybe understands the basic concept of what the work might entail, and wants to know what sort of education they must look for to get started, and “to be certified” – to earn their patient advocacy certification.
  2. Then I hear from those who, six or eight months into their private practice of health advocacy, realize that (what we actually nag and harp on all the time through the Alliance!) – if they don’t learn something about marketing and being business owners, they won’t succeed.
  3. Finally, for those who have been successfully doing this work for a period of time, and want to keep up with the latest and greatest – they want to know what opportunities exist for continuing education and, hand-in-hand, networking.

The answers to all those questions are really quite simple!  And, too, they are actually quite complex.

Getting Started – and Patient Advocacy Certification Questions:

What those who have been studying and working in our advocacy ‘space’ know – and newbies eventually figure out – is that there is not yet any form of national or internationally recognized patient advocacy certification or credential of any sort.  None. Zippo. Nada.

Yes – there is a group working to build the right certification, but (as of May 2014) patient advocacy certification doesn’t yet exist, and it will be (educated guesstimate) 2016 before it does.

Oh yes – there are a handful of educational groups that will tell you that you’ll be certified if you take their courses. They even list previous students on their website, calling them ‘certified advocates.’  One even claims their certificed advocates “licenses” must be renewed annually….  but the truth is, it is only THAT group that recognizes the credential at all. There is no national or international standard, no matter what they claim. (Don’t forget – anyone can say anything on the internet. Don’t let them convince you that spending your money will buy you something it won’t buy you. Further – for the record – licenses are only bestowed by government bodies, not by private concerns.) The truth is, among any of the groups that provide a “certificate” at the end – that’s what you get – a certificate from that organization, and not a certification that is recognized outside that group.  (OK – my rant is over now.)

So, knowing that no educational group can provide a patient advocacy certification that means anything outside the group that provides it, you still need a way to determine what education you might need in order to succeed as a private patient advocate. We suggest you do your gap analysis. Figure out what you need, what you need to know, weigh it against what you already have and know, then whatever is left over is your gap – and that’s where you should focus your education. For private advocates in the early years, your education will need to be at least as much about being a business owner as it will about the advocacy work itself, so be sure to include that in your assessment.  Here’s a much clearer explanation for you:  Education Gap Analysis – What Programs or Education Do You Need?  (There’s even more on this topic in The Health Advocate’s Start and Grow Your Own Practice Handbook.)

The First Year Struggle – Needing Business Owning Skills After All

The first year or two of owning a private advocacy practice is particularly difficult. The biggest problem is that the general public just isn’t aware of our services, or hasn’t made the leap to the willingness to pay for them yet. It’s about building that awareness, and getting paid, and too often, advocates default to doing pro bono work which sucks up the time they could be doing that awareness teaching and marketing instead.

This is way too often the case for those who discounted the need for business skills at the beginning. They choose to simply call themselves advocates, often with the statement, “I’ve already been doing this my whole life, now I just want to get paid for it” – but have not taken the time to figure out just how to do that.

Unfortunately, this is the point where we lose many people who are excellent advocates, but because they didn’t put enough effort into the activities needed to start and run a successful business (no matter what kind of business they start) – they give up and stop pursuing their dreams. So frustrating! And so sad! And meaning that all the people they could have benefited – lives saved, quality of life improved, financial foundations strengthened…  those people will never benefit because this advocate never learned to run a business.

The education needed here is to really understand business and marketing, then put that learning into practice, to maximize the possibilities the advocate will be contacted by someone who understands his/her value and then to be sure their needs are served in smart business ways. That includes understanding that for most potential clients, it’s not a question of cost; it’s a question of value. We don’t proudly talk about what we charge because some of us really just don’t buy-in to the idea that we are worth it. Instead we apologetically mention pricing and then hope that, with some luck, that potential client will agree to pay it.

An education in marketing and business will help you understand that your VALUE means your prices should be higher, and you should make the potential client aware that they are lucky to be paying you all that money. If that sounds odd to you, then this is an education you really need!  You can learn all about it in The Health Advocate’s Start and Grow Your Own Practice Handbook – starting on page 91.

The other business-knowledge must-have is the ways you talk to those potential clients – how to handle that first phone call, how to help them understand your value, how to get them to sign a contract. Those are questions we’ll be addressing in an upcoming APHA Expert Call-in. APHA members – watch your Monday newsletters for more on this.

Health Advocacy and Continuing Education

(Of note here is that furthering one’s education in the field is so important that, like many other professions, it’s built into the Health Advocate’s Code of Conduct & Professional Standards)

The need for extending one’s education isn’t usually about what education is needed; it’s more about where it can be found. Those who have been in business for awhile realize what they wish they knew.  It might be that they need to know more about what makes seniors and the elderly tick.  Or they need to better understand hospital workflow and constraints. Or they want to know what new laws impact their work, or even how they can improve their marketing outreach to attract more business. In the past few months, I’ve specifically seen more requests for mentors.

These resources are often more difficult to uncover, but most of them do exist. New possibilities are developed and become available on occasion.  Once we know someone seeks certain information, we look for ways to provide it.  (On the flip side, if we don’t know someone needs it, we don’t know to find or develop the resource for it.)

Here are some of the possibilities for continuing education – for needs we know about:

… and an invitation to you….  to let us know (email – or you can comment below) – what sort of education do YOU think you need?  What do you wish would be developed?  The very best resources available for advocates were developed because someone made a request….

And to prove that point:  know that APHA is now working with three different people/groups to develop a mentorship program.  Details coming to members (hopefully) by the end of June.

Yes – education is extremely important as long as it’s channeled in the right direction, and it’s up to every individual to figure out what his/her direction should be. Either the resources exist, or individuals need to speak up to let us know where education gaps lie.

What do you wish you could learn?

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Share your experience or join the conversation!


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  1. R. Ruth Linden, Ph.D.  May 19, 2014

    Trisha, Perhaps when you revisit this topic you might consider clarifying the distinction between a certificate and certification. To many, the differences are not self-evident.

    In addition to taking a Certificate in Patient Advocacy (a one-year program offered by UCLA Extension), I recently completed an intensive, four-month, business planning course at the Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center in San Francisco (http://www.rencenter.org/services/ soma#businessplanning). The course included marketing, management, and financial components. I can’t sing its praises highly enough. Developing a business plan with two years of pro forma financials was among its requirements. Even though I have 30+ years of experience in the healthcare space in a variety of administrative, teaching, and research roles and I’ve led a consulting firm for 15 years, I can’t imagine starting a new business without having first developed a business plan. I encourage everyone who intends to open a practice/business as an independent health advocate to seek out business planning training, whether through an academic or community-based institution. The stakes are too high and the probability of failing is too great to do otherwise.


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