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Patient Advocates: What They Are and Ways to Use Them

Kristen Hicks
By Kristen HicksApril 17, 2019

It’s bad enough when you’re healthy, but when you’re exhausted and sick with a condition or disease, navigating the United States healthcare system can feel nearly impossible. Fortunately, there is a person with the skillset to help: a patient advocate.

Learn more about patient advocates, what their role is within the healthcare system and the ways they can help you navigate it.

Patient Advocates

A patient advocate does the job of helping their patients receive the best health care possible at the most affordable rates.

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Patient advocates are often divided into two specialties:

  • General patient advocates: They help you with all the steps of receiving care, such as finding the right doctors and choosing the best treatments
  • Medical billing advocates: Like the name sounds, they focus specifically on helping patients understand their bills, contest inaccurate billing and negotiate for costs to be lowered

Patient advocates don’t provide medical advice on their own, although sometimes nurses or physicians do act as patient advocates. Instead, they help you get the right advice from medical practitioners and understand it, then they manage the recommended care.

What Patient Advocates Do

For aging seniors or busy caregivers, the reasons to consider working with a patient advocate are compelling:

1. They help you get more from your doctors’ visits.

When you meet with a doctor, you generally have limited time in the room before they need to move onto other patients. With the years of specialized study they’ve given to complex medical conditions, sometimes it can feel like they’re speaking a different language as well. Patient advocates can help with all that. To start, they help patients walk into the appointment with a plan. Patient advocate Catherine Callahan describes helping one of her clients get ready for an upcoming doctor’s visit. “I helped him prepare by working together on putting down his symptoms and the four main questions that he wanted to be answered. I printed out copies for him, the doctor and me.”

When they got to the appointment, the patient knew exactly what to say. With Callahan’s help slowing the appointment down and making sure the doctor took time to provide the answers needed, the patient ultimately better understood his condition.

In addition to helping with advance prep, patient advocates will often go to doctor’s appointments with you in order to take notes you can refer to later and help you ask the right questions while you’re in the room. Their knowledge of the system means they know important things to ask that your average patient might not.

2. They help you understand medical bills.

According to Healthline, up to 80% of all U.S. medical bills include errors. Because the billing system is so complicated and consumers don’t have a good idea of what medical procedures are supposed to cost, there’s a lot of room for mistakes.

Most of us don’t know how to properly read a medical bill or spot a problem, we just know the numbers are often shockingly confusing and large.

Patient advocates are better equipped to understand the different charges in a medical bill. They can both help you avoid paying too much and help you stay on top of the bills coming in while you’re in the hospital or too ill to deal with going through them all.

3. They make sure you get all the information you need about your care.

Healthcare providers are often busy and have a hard time providing the amount of information necessary during a short appointment for you to truly understand your care needs and condition. That can leave patients and loved ones feeling like they don’t know what’s going on or how best to proceed.

When Sheri Manska’s dad was dealing with prostate cancer, “there was a gap in understanding the most serious aspects of his health,” she says. “The gap was not so much in knowing what was happening medically, but in knowing how it was supposed to happen.”

Manska didn’t work with a patient advocate at the time, but now wishes she had. “It seemed medical personnel was too busy to keep us informed or may not be doing tests or treatment that would get us more information so we could know what to do,” she explains. “A patient advocate would have helped immensely.”

One of the services many patient advocates offer is helping do research into medical conditions and treatments to supplement the information your doctors provide, so you have a better idea of the details behind the prognosis and treatment recommendations your doctor brings up.

Patient advocates also:

  • Help you bring healthcare costs down: 41% of people in the U.S. have medical debt. With the high expenses common to medical procedures and treatments, it’s hard to avoid. By knowing how to negotiate with providers, ask the right questions and spot billing errors, patient advocates can potentially help you save hundreds or thousands of dollars.
  • Help you get better outcomes with less work: By helping you get more out of doctor’s visits and parse the details of different treatment options, patient advocates enable you to make more informed decisions that lead to better health results.
  • Reduce your stress:Stress isn’t just unpleasant, it can also be bad for your health. Offloading some of the most confusing and frustrating parts of dealing with doctors will inevitably reduce your stress levels.

Ways to Find a Patient Advocate

In some cases, patient advocates are provided by health insurance companies. So the first place to start your search is by asking your health insurance company if they cover the cost of using a patient advocate and, if so, how you can find one that’s covered by the policy.

If your health insurance doesn’t include this service (or you don’t have health insurance), the next step to try is your hospital. Hospitals, nursing homes and even senior living communities will sometimes have in-house patient advocates. Keep in mind that these advocates are on the hospital payroll. While they should still have your best interests in mind and come to the situation understanding the inner workings of your hospital better than someone from outside would, if that gives you pause, then this might not be your preferred option.

If neither of those options pans out for you, you can hire an independent patient advocate. Organizations like the Patient Advocate Foundation and the Advoconnection Directory can help you find people working as patient advocates in your area.

Have you, a parent or senior loved one used patient advocates before? What was your experience like? We’d like to hear your family’s story in the comments below.

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Kristen Hicks
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