The Power of a Health Care Advocate
You hear a lot about how to prepare for a doctor’s visit: Make a list of medications you’re taking. Write down your questions. Complete any paperwork ahead of time, if you can. Now here’s one more thing to consider: Bring your health advocate with you.
“A health advocate can be a spouse, relative, friend, or caregiver that you trust,” says Johns Hopkins expert John Burton, M.D. Even though he encourages all his patients to have an advocate, only about 70 percent do. “It would be better if it were 100 percent,” he says. “The older you are, the more important it is to have another person with you during visits.”
As you age, you may have more health issues to discuss. “Having two people hear the discussion and making sure they understand is much better than just one set of ears,” Burton says. “It’s difficult for one person to remember everything that’s been discussed.”
Choosing Your Personal Health Advocate
A good health advocate is someone who knows you well and is calm, organized, assertive, and comfortable asking questions. When selecting an advocate, it’s best to:
- Clearly explain the kind of help you need and your concerns.
- Provide details of your medical history. You may even want to give your advocate access to your electronic health record so he or she can refer to test results or notes, ask for refills on prescription medication, and even email questions or concerns to the physician. Just make sure you provide permission for the doctor and other health care professionals to share information about you with your advocate.
- Ask the advocate to take notes or even record conversations with health care professionals. (Ask for your doctor’s permission before recording.)
- Give your advocate’s contact information to your health care team, and give your advocate your health care team’s contact information.
The most important thing, says Burton, is that you choose someone you respect and trust: “Someone who’s discreet and cares for you,” he says.
While your personal health advocate can help if you’re hospitalized, many hospitals also provide patient advocates to assist you. Geriatric care managers, including registered nurses and social workers, often serve as health care advocates.
Should I Hire a Professional Health Care Advocate?
The complexity of the health care system has given rise to a new professional: the patient advocate. This person is often a nurse, social worker, geriatric care manager or other health care professional who can help you navigate the health care system, including dealing with clinicians, understanding your condition and treatment options, and even helping with health insurance issues. Patient advocates generally charge about $125 an hour, according to Elisabeth Schuler Russell, a health care consultant. Such an individual could be a good option if you don’t have a personal health advocate. Several organizations provide advocate training and lists of advocates on their sites, including the Professional Patient Advocate Institute, the Alliance of Professional Health Advocates, and the National Association of Healthcare Advocacy Consultants. However, be aware that there are no state licensing requirements or national accreditation or certification tests for patient advocates, so ask for references and assess an individual’s experience and history carefully.
Your Advocate as Educator
An advocate is not just for doctor visits or hospital stays. “You can discuss new health issues with that person—for instance, ask if he or she thinks a treatment is working,” advises Burton. “If you’ve got two people on the same page of an issue, it’s helpful. The patient doesn’t have to agonize about doing it alone.” That’s particularly important for seniors who may live alone.
An advocate can also help doctors educate you about your condition, says Burton. “Our goal is to help people fundamentally manage their own chronic illness,” he says, such as how to deal with hypertension or avoid falls. “It’s education, so two people taking notes or listening to the discussion is a real advantage.”