Do I Have to Be a Nurse to Be a Patient Advocate?

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The answer is simple.  No.

So why do I ask this question?  Earlier this month, while attending the NAHAC Conference, the question was asked by a number of people.  As if the qualification to be an effective patient advocate relied on a nursing education.

Now please don’t get me wrong.  I am a huge supporter of nurses and nursing, in its many important forms.  I’ve written many times at About.com about nurses, nurse practitioners, and why I believe training as a nurse is far more patient-centered than other forms of medical training.  Most of my commentary comes from my appreciation for the “whole patient” approach most nurses provide.  I’m a fan – a BIG fan – of nurses and the nursing model for patient care.

Here are five reasons why a patient advocate does not need to come from a nursing background:

1.  Patient advocates actually perform a number of services, many of which have nothing to do with nursing.  Some are medical bill reviewers, some do research and writing about medical problems…. Nursing isn’t the right background or training for these kinds of services.

2.  Patient advocates are facilitators, but they are not decision-makers.  Patient advocates do not perform medical functions.  They provide options and background information to their patients, but never make decisions on their patients’ behalf.  Since they aren’t making medical decisions, they don’t even need a medical background.  (Not to say a medical background wouldn’t be helpful.  It might be.  It just isn’t necessary.)

3.  No matter what the background of the patient advocate, he or she knows when it is time to find helpful resources to help his or her client.  If the advocate is a nurse, then she knows when to call in a doctor or an insurance expert.  If the advocate is not a nurse, then she knows when to call in a nurse if one is needed.  That means a patient advocate can have almost any type of background and experience…. He will simply set up his system of resource people accordingly.

4.  Patients who need an advocate’s help are all over the map when it comes to what they can afford.  Someone who is not a nurse, or does not have medical training, will charge less (or should charge less) in many instances than an advocate who does have nursing training, making him more affordable than someone who does have a nursing or medical education.

5.  Finally – to make my points – some of the best known and most effective patient advocates, real pioneers in our emerging business of patient advocacy, have no nursing experience or education in their background.  Ken Schueler, perhaps the premier patient advocate in the United States and abroad, does not have an MD or RN after his name. (He did study at Sarah Lawrence in its patient advocacy course.). Elisabeth Schuler Russell learned her skills while advocating for her baby daughter.

Smart advocates will find their training where they can, when they need it, for a particular reason.  For example, an advocate who decides to focus on cancer patients might take courses in understanding oncology.  Or an advocate who needs help understanding extensive medical terminology might take a course to better understand it.

All nurses are patient advocates.  But not all patient advocates need to be nurses to begin with.

If you are considering a career as a patient advocate, then start where you are planted.  But start.

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