How a Patient Advocate Can Assist Your Student with Medical Issues 

 “Everyone today needs a patient advocate.” That’s what the American Heart Association said.

Indeed, with our increasingly complicated healthcare system, more and more families are finding that what the American Heart Association said is true, and they are increasingly turning to patient advocates to manage their care or the care of their loved ones.  Parents worry about their child and especially if they are leaving for college, but it is particularly stressful if that child has medical issues or gets ill at school.  Distance can be a problem and if there is ongoing treatment involved, parents cannot be there to give their student the personal attention they may need to understand their treatment, speak with medical staff and schedule tests and appointments.  Equally important is communication with parents.  A parent can also benefit from the services of an advocate if the student has an ongoing or complicated medical concern.

A good patient advocate can empower families to make informed choices by educating them about the child’s medical conditions, asking physicians questions the patient wouldn’t know to ask and researching a patient’s full range of treatment options. They also act as a liaison between patients, families and providers, look out for the student if they are hospitalized and ensure that insurance claims get paid.

It’s important to remember, though, that not all patient advocates are created equal. Some may not have any hands-on healthcare experience beyond their advocacy training. To find someone with more expertise, it’s best to look for an RN patient advocate. These advocates are often veteran Registered Nurses with experience in patient care. National certification and graduate training in the field can also signal someone who is more knowledgeable about advocating for patients. About 20 U.S. universities offer graduate certificate programs in private patient advocacy.  National certification became available this year via the Patient Advocate Certification BoardTM, which conducts a rigorous exam spanning a broad spectrum of patient advocacy areas. Those who pass earn the credentials “BCPA”—Board Certified Patient Advocate.

A trained patient advocate with medical experience knows how to speak a doctor’s language and avoid costly—even deadly—medical errors.

Rather than a hindrance to doctors, patient advocates are often seen as a time-saver. A physician can communicate information to a patient advocate in five minutes that might take him or her 20 minutes to communicate to a young patient. That’s a plus to both sides. It saves time for the doctor and leaves the patient more time to understand what is going on and get a clear understanding of their options from an unbiased source. A patient advocate will give a patient and family the whole picture, not just the one that is the most financially beneficial to an insurance company or will put the most money in an unscrupulous physician’s pocket.

A patient advocate can also provide follow-up to help with a patient’s care. Anyone who has ever listened to a physician’s instructions in their office only to forget the details of those instructions when they get home or who is trying to manage a family member’s care from out-of-state understands the importance of this. The patient advocate can provide instruction when necessary, monitor compliance and watch for side effects of new medications. And when they are monitoring patients in their dorms or apartments, they can often catch the early signs of trouble and get them medical help before the health issue escalates to a health crisis.

Ever wonder whether a new symptom you’re having is a side effect of a medication but decided to take a “wait and see” attitude because you “didn’t want to bother” a busy doctor, only to have the problem get worse and be scolded for not calling sooner? A good patient advocate would know what’s normal and what’s not and make that call to your doctor when necessary.

So can a mature student act as their own advocate? Absolutely! But trained patient advocates bring to the table medical expertise that can help them spot problems early and communicate these concerns to medical personnel in a way that they will clearly understand. They also can handle the time-consuming but necessary tasks of making sense of insurance statements and ensuring that their client’s needs are being met while they’re at their most fragile.

Think of a patient advocate as a healthcare partner—someone who focuses on navigating today’s complicated healthcare system so the child and the family can just focus on getting them better.

 Teri Dreher, RN, is an award-winning  patient advocate and a pioneer in the growing field of private patient advocacy. A critical care nurse for more than 30 years, today she is owner/founder of NShore Patient Advocates,  Her new book, “How to be a Healthcare Advocate for Yourself & Your Loved Ones,” is available on Amazon.