Between a sluggish metabolism and joints that don't work the way they used to, getting older can be difficult to accept. But perhaps an even heavier cross to bear is dealing with the declining health of a loved one. Aside from the obvious reaction—sadness—there's also an insurmountable amount of pressure and stress that comes with this unfortunate fact of life. Sure, you'd like to play the role of Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman and do everything yourself, but that's clearly not realistic, so you're left asking questions like: Who will care for my loved one? How will the bills get paid? Is this caretaker really trustworthy?
There are a lot of skeptics who believe the healthcare system is only after our money and not our best interests. This way of thinking has opened doors for a new, growing trend: patient advocacy. More consumers and families are hiring private professional health advocates, or PPHAs—many of whom are experienced registered nurses—to guide them through the maze of modern healthcare.
“The healthcare system has become so complex and profit-driven, that patients get lost in the shuffle,” says Teri Dreher, an RN who, after thirty-plus years of critical care nursing (including twelve years in Africa), founded North Shore Patient Advocates, LLC—the Chicago area’s largest advocacy agency—in 2011. Services include everything from looking out for patients during hospitalization to identifying the best healthcare professionals, helping make sure insurance claims get paid, and more.
When it comes to Dreher's efforts, it's safe to say people are taking notice. The go-getter was named Entrepreneur of the Year by her local Chamber of Commerce, as well as the recipient of the H. Kenneth Schueler Patient Advocacy Compass Award—the highest honor in the industry awarded to her by the Alliance of Professional Health Advocates.
“Up to 440,000 patients die in the hospital each year due to medical errors,” says Dreher, citing a 2013 study. “Patients need someone knowledgeable looking out solely for their interests.”
But Dreher wasn't just inspired to open her business by statistics alone. Her father in-law became critically ill with a life-threatening blood clot while in Belize. While he was eventually released, it made Dreher think: What if he didn’t have a nurse in the family watching out for him? It was shortly after this episode that Dreher formed her agency, which currently includes three specialized RN advocates and a former social worker with a stellar record of winning insurance claims.
Thanks to demand, expansion is on the horizon for Dreher's team, as well as the industry in general—particularly since the Affordable Care Act. Around 20 universities now offer graduate certificate programs and there are two leading trade associations: the National Association of Healthcare Advocacy Consultants and The Alliance of Professional Health Advocates.
“Many people think ‘advocate’ implies ‘adversarial,’ but that’s not true,” says Dreher. “Busy doctors would rather spend five minutes updating a medical professional than 20 minutes with an overwhelmed patient. They know the advocate will educate the patient.”
Whether you're currently looking out for the well being of a loved one, or you want to plan ahead for the future, Dreher shared her top tips with FW: Chicago.
Tips for Advocating for a Sick Family Member
If you don’t hire a professional advocate, Dreher says it’s essential that relatives advocate for their loved ones. Here’s how to get started:
- Be proactive: prepare a medical summary for your loved one in advance, covering health conditions, allergies, physicians, and a current list of medications and dosages. In the event of hospitalization, it’s the fastest way to get staff up to speed.
- Educate yourself about a loved one’s medical condition, but choose sources carefully. Consumer magazines and mass websites are not credible. Consult the National Institutes of Health website for health information and Drugs.com for medication information. Ask the doctor where you can read up as well.
- When choosing a new doctor, ask a trusted healthcare professional for a recommendation. Don’t rely on word of mouth or online reviews.
Try to avoid hospitalization, especially if the patient is elderly. (The elderly are most vulnerable to infections, which rage at hospitals.) In the event of hospitalization:
- Know that doctors and nurses can make mistakes. Pay attention, take notes, provide pertinent information, and ask questions, but in a respectful way.
- Organize shifts among relatives, ensuring someone is with the patient as much as possible. Only enlist those who pay attention, take notes, and communicate well.
- Notes should include the name and shifts of nurses and doctors caring for your family member, as well as observations and questions.
- Make questions count. Don’t pepper doctors with questions a nurse could answer. Be respectful of their time; it’s key to building good relationships.
- Make sure the staff wears gloves or uses foam hand sanitizer before touching the patient.
- Make sure the cleaning staff regularly sanitizes objects staff members touch.
- Know it’s your right to request medical records for the stay, although you may not receive them until after discharge.
- Be especially vigilant during admission and discharge, because that’s when staff is working fastest and when errors are most likely to occur.