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How a Patient Advocate Can Assist Your Student with Medical Issues in College

Guest Contributor


"Everybody today needs a patient advocate."

That’s what the American Heart Association declared recently. Indeed, with our increasingly complicated healthcare system, more and more patients are finding this to be true, and are increasingly turning to patient advocates to manage their care or the care of their loved ones.

Parents worry when a child is away at college, especially if that child has medical issues or gets ill at school. Distance can be a problem — if ongoing treatment is involved, parents often can't 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. And students may not know how or when to loop parents into communication with the providers they're seeing.

A good patient advocate can empower families to make informed choices by educating them about their student’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.

Look for a Board Certified Patient Advocate.

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 this can help you and your student avoid costly — even deadly — medical errors.

Rather than a hindrance, patient advocates are often seen by doctors to be a time-saver. A physician can communicate information to a patient advocate in five minutes that might take 20 minutes to communicate to a young patient. That’s a plus for everyone. It saves time for the doctor and leaves the patient more time to grasp what's going on and get a clear understanding of their options from an unbiased and knowledgeable source.

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 by the time 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 college-aged 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 will know what’s normal and what’s not and make that call to your student's doctor when necessary.

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 vulnerable.

Think of a patient advocate as a healthcare partner — someone who focuses on navigating the complex healthcare system so your student can just focus on getting better.

Teri Dreher, RN, CMM, BCPA, is an award-winning patient advocate and pioneer in the growing field of private patient advocacy. A critical care nurse for more than 30 years, she is owner/founder of NShore Patient Advocates, the largest advocacy company in the Chicago area. Her book, Patient Advocacy Matters, is now in its second printing.
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