Patient advocacy has long been understood as being a core component of a nurse’s professional identity. Patient advocacy among nurses is equated with being attentive to a patient’s safety and protecting patients from harm. In fact, advocacy for nurses is a central part of the American Nurses Association (ANA) Code of Ethics for Nurses, which draws attention to a nurse’s role as a patient advocate and encourages nurses to take a proactive stance with regard to patient care.
However, patient advocacy, in recent years, has moved beyond being just a duty associated with RNs to actually becoming a specialty role within healthcare institutions, insurance companies, nonprofit organizations, and governmental agencies across the U.S.
Patient advocates work in support of patient rights; educating, advising, and helping patients make decisions. They work on behalf of the patient, speaking for them and serving as a liaison between the patient, the healthcare team, and the healthcare institution or system.
The first step to becoming a nurse in patient advocacy is completing a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) and earning a state license as a Registered Nurse (RN). The Johnson & Johnson Campaign for Nursing’s Future recognizes the BSN as the minimum educational requirement to become a nurse advocate.
In addition to possessing a clinical nursing background, RNs interested in becoming patient advocates often seek additional education or training in areas such as social work, research, insurance, and patient education.
Although patient advocates are not always baccalaureate-prepared RNs, many are, as these professionals are skilled in both patient advocacy and clinical practice, making them well-suited for the position.
The Many Roles of the Patient Advocate
Health care is an often-complicated process that many patients and their families find difficult to navigate. From the treatment and management of diseases to locating and utilizing resources, nurses working as patient advocates can relieve a great deal of the stress that patients experience.
Their clinical expertise allows them to explain everything from medication and treatment plans to post-surgery complications and disease management, thereby providing patients with the information necessary to remain well informed and in charge of their health.
Their work involves listening to complaints, resolving problems, and bridging any communication gaps between the patient and the patient’s healthcare team or medical facility.
Patient advocates may also help patients and their families make their way through the maze of health insurance and billing processes, educating them on everything from covered procedures to co-pays, insurance reimbursement, and hospital bills.
Finally, nurses working as patient advocates may be called upon to provide a great deal of emotional support to the patients and patient families they serve, focusing exclusively on their needs and concerns.
Nurses in Patient Advocacy: Job Settings and Duties
Nurses in patient advocacy may work both in and outside of the hospital setting. As such, job duties for these nurse professionals often differ depending on the setting in which they work.
Hospital Patient Advocates
Nurses working as patient advocates for hospitals and other medical facilities are generally responsible for:
- Interacting with newly admitted patients: Nurses as patient advocates often meet and introduce themselves to newly admitted patients. They provide patients with information on patient rights and provide them with their contact information should they require assistance.
- Documenting, investigating, and resolving patient complaints: Nurses as patient advocates may handle any number of complaints, from an impolite hospital employee to allegations of medical misconduct. These complaints may come from the patient or the patient’s family or loved ones. It is up to patient advocates to document, investigate, and attempt to resolve any and all complaints.
- Analyzing complaints as to improve the overall quality of care: Along with documenting patient complaints for resolution purposes, nurses working in patient advocacy analyze complaints and use the information they glean to work with medical team members, department heads, administration, human resources, and even the hospital’s legal team to implement the changes necessary to prevent future complaints of a similar nature.
Non-Profit Patient Advocates
Nurses working as patient advocates may also work for organizations dedicated to patient advocacy (such as the Patient Advocacy Foundation). Often times, this assistance is free of charge to patients and their families.
Advocate organizations may also focus on specific diseases; as such, patient advocates in these settings are skilled in specific areas, such as Alzheimer’s disease, AIDS, and cancer. For example, nurses often work as patient advocates for groups such as the American Cancer Society, where they may do everything from provide emotional support to educate individuals on available public or private resources.
Independent Patient Advocates
Nurses working as patient advocates may also work in an independent capacity, providing a variety of services for patients and their families.
The Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities of Nurses in Patient Advocacy
Nurses working as patient advocates must possess a specific skillset beyond their nursing education and experience. Specifically, these nursing professionals possess:
- Strong customer services/interpersonal skills
- The ability to handle patients in less-than-ideal conditions
- Excellent analytical skills (planning, organizing, troubleshooting, etc.)
- The ability to work with minimum supervision
- Knowledge of the healthcare system, including private health insurance, government health insurance, and Medicare/Medicaid
- The ability to troubleshoot and resolve issues
- A supportive and sensitive nature
- Tact and diplomacy when dealing with stressful for awkward situations
- A team approach, which allows them to accomplish goals and obtain resolutions