An Overview of the Profession of Patient Advocacy
Updated June 2016
• Patient Advocacy is a fast growing profession.
Cited as one of the fastest growing professions of the upcoming decade, private patient advocacy is, indeed, growing rapidly. The healthcare system has changed to the point where it is no longer recognizable. As patients become more fearful they aren’t getting the care they need, or are being asked to pay more than they can afford, they and their caregivers are increasingly reaching out to private, independent patient advocates to get the help they need.
You may recognize private patient advocates using different terms: health advocates, patient or health navigators, case or care managers, doulas and others; all names that represent someone who works one-on-one with patients as individuals.
• How do advocates help patients and caregivers?
Advocates offer a wide range of services ranging from accompanying patients to their doctors’ appointments, to sitting by the bedside in the hospital, to reviewing and negotiating medical bills – and everything in between. Here is a master list of the types of services advocates offer. (Note: not all patients’ advocates offer all services.)
Some advocates focus on one particular disease or approach to care. For example, an advocate might work only with cancer patients. Another advocate might focus on complementary and alternative treatments. Still others have nothing to do with care itself, instead focusing on the billing and claims aspects of a patients’ medical care.
The overall goal is to provide patients and caregivers with the support and education they need so they can make their own decisions about their next steps. Whether that is helping to coordinate their care among several providers, sitting by their bedsides to keep them safe in the hospital, helping them interpret difficult medical information and terminology, or reviewing their medical bills to find errors or duplications – the advocate is the one person who has the background and knowledge needed to make the patient’s journey as smooth as possible.
The benefit to both patients and caregivers is peace of mind, and the ability to put their efforts toward healing, or supporting their loved one who needs care, knowing a professional is handling the important details.
• Why do patients need advocates? I thought doctors, nurses and other providers offered those types of care and services?
Doctors, nurses and other providers have constraints on their work and abilities that preclude them from being devoted to one patient’s needs.
Those providers work with hundreds or thousands of patients, dozens every day. A private advocate focuses on that one patient at a time who needs his or her help.
Clinical providers are employed by a practice, a hospital, or another providing facility. They derive their paychecks from that organization and therefore are beholden to that organization first – and their patients second. (See The Allegiance Factor) A private advocate is beholden only to his or her patient.
At the end of a long workday, a traditional provider goes home, then starts again the next day with another several dozen patients, trying to solve their problems. A patient advocate may be on call 24/7, and the next day, is still helping his or her individual patient who has ongoing needs.
• Aren’t there patient advocates in hospitals and insurance companies? How are private advocates different?
Just as providers have an allegiance to their employer, so do hospital and insurance company advocates. The only person who can and will focus solely on the patient is a private, independent patient advocate.
• Who pays for the advocates’ services?
Private professional patient advocates are usually paid directly by the patient or his caregiver. Some employers have begun providing patient advocacy support to their employees, and some labor unions and churches are providing this type of support as well. As of 2015, some reimbursement is provided to licensed providers for some advocacy services related to chronic medical conditions through Medicare, but no private health insurance is known to reimburse for these services.
Not everyone can afford to hire an advocate, but many can and do. A good metaphor is to think of private advocates the way some families regard private education or after-school programs. Little Johnny or Susie may not get music or enough sports time in school – both arguably vitally important for their upbringing. Or maybe they need tutoring to pass history or math. When necessary, parents pay for that additional support and education.
Likewise, when a patient faces difficult debilitation or a life-compromising (or ending) illness, a private advocate may seem very affordable, and necessary. When a patient or family faces financial devastation from medical bills that are too high, then a private billing advocate may be financially lifesaving. When a patient is fearfully facing life and death decisions, the cost of an advocate who can support the patient’s decision-making seems meaningless.
• Are jobs available for those who might choose patient advocacy as a profession?
This organization addresses private professional advocacy – those advocates who are self-employed, or work in small businesses, providing services to individuals. For those who are willing to go into business for themselves, or join forces with someone who is building a private advocacy business, the sky is the limit.
There are many other forms of advocacy as well, including hospital patient advocates, advocates who work with various disease organizations (often as volunteers) and others. There are some jobs available in those areas, but they are not considered to be private professional patient advocates.
More information about advocacy jobs in general can be found in So You Want to Be a Patient Advocate? Choosing a Career in Health or Patient Advocacy.
• How many advocates are there across the United States?
An educated guesstimate of the numbers of privately paid professional advocates would be 350 or more in the US. Hundreds may be training to become advocates. Still hundreds more are considering advocacy as a career.
While the growth is not as robust, advocates are also establishing successful practices in Canada, Australia, England and in other corners of the world.
We predict the profession will grow 100% to 200% per year over the next decade as more and more citizens demand their services, and as the number of advocates rises to meet the need. Aging baby-boomers, skyrocketing out-of-pocket costs, and the increasing needs of individuals trying to obtain care in a confusing healthcare system (see the question about healthcare reform, below) will fuel the growth of the profession.
As of 2016, there aren’t enough advocates to meet the demand in either the United States or Canada. The fastest growing regions for the profession are Boston, Washington, DC-Virginia-Maryland, New York City-New Jersey, most cities in Florida, Phoenix and Tucson, Seattle, the Bay Area and Southern California.
Most areas of the US and Canada know little or nothing about private patient advocacy. All areas of both countries hold incredible potential for the right person to decide to become a private, independent advocate.
• What kind of background, experience or training do private advocates have?
People choosing private advocacy as a profession come from many different backgrounds, and have many reasons for doing the work they do. Some have been nurses or doctors, became frustrated with the system that depends on cost-cutting and reimbursements, and have decided to shift their focuses to patients as individuals. Other advocates have not worked previously in healthcare; instead they found themselves helping a parent, a child or a friend navigate a medical problem, and now find they are interested in doing the same for others.
To meet the needs of all these reasons for choosing advocacy, and therefore the many different kinds of training they will need, a number of organizations and universities have developed courses and programs for potential patients’ advocates to learn their new trade.
Several national organizations exist to provide continuing education and support to patient advocates.
- The Alliance of Professional Health Advocates provides business support for the legal, insurance, financial and marketing concerns of private, independent advocates, plus client services and advocacy support for all advocates.
- NAHAC, the National Association of Health Advocacy Consultants provides support for advocacy itself (best practices, ethics).
- The Beryl Institute provides support and credentialing to hospital patient advocates.
• Are patient advocates licensed or certified in some way?
No. As of early 2016, no states license patient advocates, nor is there a nationally-recognized certification, accreditation or other credential assigned to patient advocates.
Some of the educational programs offered (see link above) provide a certificate of completion for those who finish their programs, but none are nationally-recognized. See The Myth of Patient Advocacy Certification.
In the absence of a certification, many advocates subscribe to the Health Advocate’s Code of Conduct and Professional Standards.
There is a credential on the horizon. The Patient Advocate Certification Board is developing the certification that will become the standard for patient advocacy. It is expected their first certification will be offered by mid-2017.
• How are patient advocates regarded by doctors, nurses and other providers?
There is a range of reaction from providers.
Those who have never worked with an advocate before have many questions, and may be reluctant, at first, to work with one more person in the doctor-patient relationship, especially one they don’t know.
Those doctors and nurses who have worked with advocates recognize what an advantage it is to THEIR work. They spend less time having to re-describe or reiterate their instructions to a patient, knowing the advocate is there to facilitate with the patient. Instead of spending their appointment time with explanations or long descriptions for patients, they can rely on the advocate to do that work for them.
Medical professionals who have worked with patient advocates are some of the biggest champions of the advocacy profession. Many private advocates report that doctors and nurses are recommending their patients connect with an advocate to improve the journey for all.
• Where can you learn more about a career as a health or patient advocate?
A general overview of the field, along with information for both employed advocates and self-employed, private, independent, professional advocates can be found in So You Want to Be a Patient Advocate? Choosing a Career in Health or Patient Advocacy (book and e-book, published 2015 by DiagKNOWsis Media.)
Do you have a question about private patient advocacy not answered here?
Please contact us.