What Is a Patient Advocate?

Communication between patients, family members, friends, doctors and nurses is tiring and confusing.

Here are a few helpful tips from fellow caregivers, doctors and nurses regarding what the role is for advocates:

What is an advocate?

An advocate will act as the mediator between the patient and the hospital or health care team and be the patient’s primary spokesperson.

An advocate isn't required, but he or she may help improve communication between everyone. This person can also be the main contact for family and friends and the go-between for the patient and hospital team.

WHN TIP: Advocate on Staff

A patient advocate doesn’t have to be a family member – many hospitals have patient advocates on staff so ask about this option. However, it’s still a good idea to have a primary family contact for communication.

Top Tips for Advocate

Patient advocates have a tough job – they need to communicate wishes and requests on the patient’s behalf, help set up family visits, fill out mounds of paperwork and so on.

Considering advocacy? Here are a few helpful tips:

  1. Set up a binder, log or diary before heading to the hospital. Pieces should include:
    • Bills, paperwork, receipts: advocates can also meet with the hospital’s billing officers to discuss finances.
    • Important contact numbers (family, friends, insurance agent, primary physician, health care providers, attorney)
    • Insurance information/card
    • Legal documents (living wills, health care directives)
    • List of medications and supplements
    • History and records of tests, procedures, treatments
    • The names and titles of the patient’s health care team, contact details and who to contact when off-duty
  2. Take notes and ask plenty of questions if you don’t understand something.

    WHN EXPERT TIP: Learn to speak “hospital”- even just a little.

    Machines have names. So do nurses. Calling people and things by their right name supports speedy and compassionate care.
    - Jari Holland Buck, author of the Hospital Stay Handbook

  3. Designate advocate “helpers”.
    You will not advocate 24/7! You need to rest and take care of yourself. Set up shifts or ask for someone to help with care at the hospital, if needed. Ask family members and friends to do tasks like:
    • Spread the word.
      "It is hard for a family to contact every single person," says Dr. Sharon Langshur, cofounder of CarePages. "Once someone contacts you, offer to call other friends and neighbors. Or, offer to create a CarePage (a social networking tool for patients and families) so the family only needs to share news one time, when it’s convenient for them."
    • Help with tasks outside the hospital.
      The patient and the patient’s family might need help with things like lawn care, child care, food preparation and so on. Setting up a schedule to help out with these things can really make a difference.
    • Help the nursing staff.
      "There is a tremendous shortage of nurses at the moment," says Jari Holland Buck, author of the Hospital Stay Handbook. "Many things can be done by a visitor to assist the nurse such as securing bedding, running errands for the staff or patient, filling water pitchers, assisting with patient food intake, notifying the nurse when alarms sound (do NOT touch the equipment!), securing supplies, etc."
  4. Establish a consistent or timely update for the family.
    • It is often easiest to tape record each doctor’s visit as well as your questions, and then transcribe the main developments in an e-mail to appropriate family and friends.
    • You can also use an online networking tool called CarePages - it's free and allows families and friends to share information about a loved one's condition. Learn more here.
  5. Take care of yourself.
    • Ask for help when you need it
    • Take a break now and then.

Reviewed 5/2009