As such, I am thrilled to announce the first Private Professional Patient Advocates Week (planned to be an annual event) – a week of recognizing the talents and contributions of the several hundred private patient advocates across the US and Canada.
“Thrilled” may actually not be strong enough.
Over the past couple of years, I have had the privilege of meeting dozens of private advocates – people who are dedicating to smoothing the difficult path through the healthcare system. They lead their charges to improved health, they protect them from medical errors and infections, they help their patients learn and understand more about their diagnoses and treatment options, they explain pros and cons to help patients make choices, they juggle appointments among providers and review medications to be sure conflicts aren’t creating problems when the intent was the opposite. Then they save them money or at least make sure it’s being spent wisely.
And that all happens before lunchtime.
It seems like a week isn’t enough time to provide due honor. Patient advocates and navigators devote their lives to improving the lives of others. There is no more noble calling.
It’s an important question, and the answer is actually quite simple.
The difference between a private patient advocate or navigator, and those found in hospitals, through insurance companies, or other places, is what I call The Advocate’s Allegiance Factor. It’s based on who is producing the paycheck.
Private patient advocates are paid directly by the patient or the patient’s caregiver and have only one allegiance – to the patient. The patient’s needs, whether they be medical, navigational, financial or locational – are the prime concern of the patient advocate. Period.
One of our AdvoConnection members, Elisabeth Russell, is featured in the March issue of MORE Magazine. The story of her journey toward becoming a patient navigator is worth reading. I dare you not to choke up when you read about her daughter’s diagnosis and treatment results. A true blessing – and very well written. (Thank you MORE Magazine!)
But there were some real mistakes in the sidebar information – and they need to be pointed out. Potential patient advocates and navigators can get the wrong picture from what’s there. At this point in our growth as a career, it’s important these facts be set straight.
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.