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Patient Advocates: How a Medical Advocate Can Help Seniors

By Kristen HicksApril 26, 2022
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Patient advocates can help explain complex medical jargon, assist with billing, or even book appointments. Seniors living alone or juggling information about several conditions may find these advocates particularly useful.Learn more about patient advocates, their role within the health care system, and how they can help you navigate it.


In this article:


What is a patient advocate?

The patient advocate definition changes depending on what is needed by the patient. Patient advocates generally answer health questions, educate patients and family members, and offer support according to the medical needs of the patient, as outlined by the University of Rochester Medical Center — Health Encyclopedia.

A patient advocate is also known as the following:

  • Medical advocate
  • Health advocate
  • Ombudsman
  • Patient liaison
  • Care or case manager

Patient advocates don’t provide medical advice on their own, although sometimes physicians or nurses act as patient advocates and then provide medical advice. Generally, advocates help you to get the right advice from medical practitioners and understand it. Then, they help you manage the recommended care. Some patient advocates work as independent contractors or volunteers, while others are hospital or insurance employees.

How do medical advocates support senior health?

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

Doctors’ visits

When you meet with a doctor, you generally have limited time with them before they need to see other patients. Medical terms and jargon can sometimes make it feel like they’re speaking a different language. A higher level of education and strong language skills help patients communicate with their doctor, according to the research journal Patient Education and Counseling. But, not all patients have this background, and this is where medical advocates can help.

Patient and medical advocates not only help patients understand difficult language, but they can help patients walk into the appointment with a plan. Because patient advocates can attend doctor appointments with you, they can take notes and help you ask the right questions while you’re there. Their knowledge of the health care system means they know important things to ask and say that an average patient might not.

Patient advocate Catherine Callahan described 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 the patient got to the appointment, they knew exactly what to say. Callahan helped slow the appointment down and made sure the doctor took the time to provide the answers needed. Ultimately, the patient had a better understanding of his condition with the help of the advocate.

Medical bills

According to recent data, up to 80% of all U.S. medical bills include errors. Because the U.S. billing system can be complicated, there’s a lot of room for mistakes. And, many consumers don’t know how to properly read a medical bill or spot a problem. They just know the numbers are often shockingly confusing and large.

Patient advocates are better equipped to understand the different charges in a medical bill. By negotiating with providers, asking the right questions, and spotting billing errors, patient advocates can help avoid unnecessary overpayment. They’ll also help you stay on top of any incoming bills if you’re in the hospital or ill.

Important medical information

Health care providers are busy and can have a hard time providing all the necessary information during a short appointment. This can make it harder for you to truly understand your care needs and condition. As a result, patients and loved ones may feel like they don’t know what’s going on or how best to proceed.

When Sheri Manska’s dad was dealing with prostate cancer, she was at a loss when it came to understanding important medical prognosis information.

“There was a gap in understanding the most serious aspects of his health,” Manska said. “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 the medical personnel were 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 explained. “A patient advocate would have helped immensely.”

Many patient advocates conduct research into medical conditions and treatments to supplement the information your doctors provide. This way, you have a better idea of the details behind the prognosis and treatment recommendations your doctor brings up.

Reduce caregiver stress

Caregiving can take a toll on a caregiver’s health. Offloading some of the most confusing and frustrating parts of dealing with doctors will inevitably reduce a caregiver’s stress levels. Caregivers who typically attend parents’ doctor visits to help with their care should use a patient advocate to lighten their load.

How can I get in contact with a patient advocate?

  • Insurance. Start by asking your health insurance company if they cover the cost of a patient advocate. If they do, ask how you can find one locally that’s covered by the policy.
  • Hospital patient advocates. Hospitals sometimes have in-house patient advocates. Some work as volunteers, though some may be on the hospital payroll. Nonetheless, they should still have the patient’s best interests in mind.
  • Medicare beneficiary ombudsman (MBO). These advocates are available to Medicare beneficiaries and focus on explaining Medicare benefits and rights. They can help resolve any Medicare-related concerns.
  • Long-term care ombudsman. Nursing homes and senior living communities sometimes have an advocate for residents. Similar to hospital-staffed patient advocates, these ombudsmen are paid by the community they work in.
  • Independent contractors. You can also hire an independent patient advocate. Organizations like the National Association of Healthcare Advocacy and ADVO Connection Directory can help you find patient advocates in your area.
  • Volunteers. Some non-profit organizations provide patient advocates to those with certain medical conditions. Check to see if your local area hospital or senior center offers guidance on where to find volunteer patient advocates. Or, do an online search for patient advocate volunteers in your area.

If you’re unsure whether you or your loved one needs a patient advocate, consider the following health and lifestyle questions:

  • Has there been a recent diagnosis of cancer or a chronic disease?
  • Is your loved one recovering from a stroke and unable to advocate for themselves?
  • Is there a cognitive impairment, such as Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia?
  • Is assistance needed to manage medications or determine if any medications are unnecessary?
  • Would you or your loved one benefit from having a second set of eyes and ears at medical appointments?

After considering your options, remember that the Senior Living Advisors at A Place for Mom are always available to answer any questions, free of charge. They’re a great resource and can guide you towards finding the perfect level of care for you or a loved one.

Sources:

Aelbrecht K., Hanssens L., Detollenaere J., Willems S., Deveugele M., & Pype P. (2019, April). Determinants of physician-patient communication: The role of language, education and ethnicityPatient Education and Counseling.

Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. How the Medicare beneficiary ombudsman works for you. CMS.gov.

Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. Medicare beneficiary ombudsman (MBO). CMS.gov.

The LBL Group. (2019, May 21). How common are medical billing errors?

University of Rochester Medical Center: Health Encyclopedia. Health newcomer: The patient advocate.

The information contained in this article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to constitute medical, legal, or financial advice or to create a professional relationship between A Place for Mom and the reader. Always seek the advice of your health care provider, attorney, or financial advisor with respect to any particular matter, and do not act or refrain from acting on the basis of anything you have read on this site. Links to third-party websites are only for the convenience of the reader; A Place for Mom does not endorse the contents of the third-party sites.

Author
Kristen Hicks

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