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How private patient advocates can work with doctors

In an ideal world, the doctor is also the patient advocate. Physicians inhabit a place of privilege in our society, and that brings with it responsibilities not only to patients, but also to the larger community and the health care system as a whole.

Dr. Katy Plax of the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis sees two of the roles doctors play as the “canary” and the “chronic illness diminisher.” The canary (as in the canary in the coal mine) recognizes signs of forthcoming illnesses or health conditions. The chronic illness diminisher provides research-based, effective treatment to help patients live their best lives.

Unfortunately, the pressures of the modern health care system don’t always let doctors fulfill these roles. You might see your doctor for 10 minutes before they’re off to the next examination room, and you’re left with lingering questions and no answers.

I think that’s why private patient advocacy is one of the fastest growing health care fields in the U.S. It’s hard to get a handle on just how many private patient advocates there are — some are in solo practice, some work for health care companies — but I can tell you that the demand is increasing as our health care system becomes more complex.

You may hesitate to hire a private patient advocate because you don’t want your doctor or other provider to think you don’t trust their judgment. But the advocate is not there to second-guess every diagnosis and treatment plan.

Private patient advocates perform a wide range of tasks for their clients, including:

• Educating patients and their families about their medical conditions


• Asking physicians questions a layperson wouldn’t know to ask

• Acting as liaison between patients and providers

• Researching a patient’s full range of treatment options following a diagnosis

• Looking out for a patient while he or she is hospitalized

• Ensuring insurance claims are handled accurately so the patient doesn’t pay more than they’re supposed to

Here are six ways a patient advocate can work with your doctor.

1.) Navigating complex conditions

If you have several chronic health conditions, they likely interact and you may see different specialists for each. You may need close monitoring and emotional support. The patient advocate can bridge these different specialties to make sure important information is passed along.

In addition, the advocate — whose only priority is the patient — is there to provide the face-to-face contact you may need.

2.) Saving time and money

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Lesson planning (Module ) – A Course in Language Teaching


Rather than a challenge to the doctor’s authority, the patient advocate can actually be an ally, allowing the doctor to see more patients.

In my experience, a busy doctor would much rather spend five minutes updating a knowledgeable professional than 20 minutes explaining things to an overwhelmed patient or their family, knowing the advocate will educate the client later. By the same token, private patient advocates can bring physicians up to speed on a client’s status in the fraction of the time the patient could.

3.) Saving frustration and worry

As cognitive abilities diminish, a patient may misunderstand, or even miss, what the doctor is telling them to do. This is worrying for a physician, who may not be certain the message is getting through, and could lead to unfavorable health outcomes if instructions aren’t followed.

With a patient advocate, the doctor is assured follow-up and compliance are being monitored. In short, through their oversight, they act as a safety net for patients beyond the office setting.

4.) Being in the home

Similarly, private patient advocates get to observe patients where doctors can’t: at home. They can monitor medications, diet and therapies and check in as needed. Often, they can spot signs of impending trouble before a calamity happens — in other words, they can be the canary.

5.) Preventing medical errors

The last thing a physician wants is for a patient to be harmed by a medical error due to miscommunication. A private patient advocate is vigilant in ensuring doctor’s orders are followed by hospital staff and that emerging drug reactions or complications following surgery are called to their attention.

6.) Knowing where to find resources

Doctors do not have a full grasp of community resources and advocates are definitely street smart in that area. They know where the best companies are to support patients aging in place and provide the emotional support and safety net that senior orphans (seniors without family) crave.

Be assured that, if you decide you need a private patient advocate, your doctor won’t consider it an insult. She or he might even congratulate you on taking your health care into your own hands and doing what you need to get better.

• Teri Dreher is a board-certified patient advocate. A critical care nurse for 30+ years, she is founder of NShore Patient Advocates ( Her book, “How to Be a Healthcare Advocate for Yourself & Your Loved Ones,” is available on Amazon. She is offering a free phone consultation to Daily Herald readers; call her at (312) 788-2640 or email [email protected].

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