The Importance of Patient Advocacy in Healthcare: A Primer for Doctors

By: Collin Couey on January 11, 2024
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If you’ve worked in the healthcare system, chances are you’ve heard of patient advocacy. Small practice owners, nurse practitioners, or admins might have to interact with patient advocates in a variety of ways, so it’s crucial to understand what the role of advocates is in their patients’ care plans, as well as the benefits or challenges that might happen when working with one.

After all, doctors who encourage collaboration with patient advocates can be more marketable for new patients and potentially build more meaningful relationships with their patients by creating more tailored care plans.

With that in mind, we surveyed patients to determine what they thought about patient advocacy. Additionally, we talked with Dr. Gerda Maissel, a Board Certified Patient Advocate (BPCA) and Board Certified Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (PM&R) physician with over 30 years of experience in the healthcare system. [1] She shared with us her experience as a patient advocate to help doctors understand why working with one is beneficial to all parties involved.

headshot of Dr. Gerda Maissel

Dr. Gerda Maissel, BPCA and PM&R [1]

What is patient advocacy?

Patient advocacy is done by a third party, independent of the healthcare organization who is hired to assist patients with navigating the complicated healthcare system. Their primary function is helping patients throughout their medical journey.

Using a third party advocate helps keep things objective because the advocate isn’t coming into the situation with any preconceived ideas about the situation and can assess it with a fresh set of eyes.

Healthcare advocacy usually involves either former healthcare professionals or billing experts who no longer work in healthcare organizations. 

You might be asking yourself, “Why is patient advocacy important?” According to Software Advice’s 2023 Consumer Wearables Survey*, patients are significantly more likely to choose a practice that works with patient advocates over one that does not.

SA graphic showing that 87% of patients are more likely to choose a doctor who works with patient advocates

By advertising that you welcome and work with patient advocates, patients are more likely to choose you because they feel they have more support from an advocate.

What is the role of a patient advocate?

A patient advocate’s purpose is helping patients access and navigate their health care by educating them so they can make well-informed decisions. They can guide patients through their medical care, insurance, administrative, or legal questions.

If one of your patients has hired a patient advocate, don’t be surprised if the advocate sits in on their appointments with you. If they hire a billing or legal advocate, you might not even know they have one.

Medical care advocates provide specialized support

Medical care advocates generally have a clinical background, which makes them uniquely equipped to help patients navigate complicated clinical situations to get the best patient care possible. They might be former doctors themselves or retired nurse practitioners who are familiar with the ins and outs of the healthcare system.

You might even find more specific specializations within medical care advocates. If a health advocate was a rehabilitation physician, they might only work with patients seeking rehabilitation.

The primary purpose of a health advocate is to ensure that their client receives and understands the best medical care possible. They do this by providing effective two-way communication between the patient and the healthcare professional. They’ll help the patient prepare for the appointment beforehand and will often accompany the patient during the appointment either via telehealth or in person.

“I can’t tell you how many times one of my patients’ physicians was suspicious of me. When they realize that I can save them time because I can give them key history they need to know, they’re much more receptive.”

Dr. Gerda Maissel

Types of help medical care advocates provide:

  • Communicating with healthcare providers and doctors

  • Preparing, setting, and attending appointments

  • Speaking up about patient rights

  • Making referrals

  • Explaining confusing medical information

  • Providing essential context to doctors about their patient’s medical history

  • Clarifying patient treatment options and diagnoses

  • Coordinating care between specialists

Benefits of patient advocacy for doctors

Patient advocacy improves health outcomes with better communication

Improved communication is perhaps the single most significant benefit a patient advocate can provide to any patient interaction. When a patient hires an advocate, they will generally come better prepared for each meeting, which will help reduce the amount of back and forth you have to do with them to find the best solution to their medical concern.

Additionally, you’ll be more likely to land on a mutually satisfactory solution for all parties with the aid of a patient advocate because they have expertise in your field. They’ve been where you are. They understand the context of what you’re trying to get across to your patients. It’s often hard to remember that your patients might not understand everything happening with their condition.

That’s why having a patient advocate involved is so helpful. They can bridge the gap and help their patient better understand what you’re trying to discover.

Case study

Dr. Maissel has run into this during her patient advocacy:

“I had a client who had some recurring abdominal abscesses who was worried they’d come back and wanted to make sure that didn’t happen. We scheduled an appointment with a colorectal surgeon, and I attended that meeting. During the meeting, she asks him, ‘Do you have nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea?’

Of course I know she’s asking those questions to see if she needs to worry about infection, but my client doesn’t. My client answered by talking about their constipation, which was not what the surgeon wanted to hear, so she disengaged before repeating her question. I could tell my client was getting frustrated, and the surgeon wasn’t getting what she needed either.

Because I understood why she was asking her question, I said my client had no signs of infection in the last month. She re-engaged and moved forward to have a productive meeting.”

The surgeon reviewed a checklist of items she needed to evaluate a potential new patient. Still, the patient didn’t understand that she was asking those specific questions to determine if there were signs of infection, so they talked about other gastrointestinal concerns they were experiencing, thinking that it would be helpful.

Patient advocates speak to doctors, for lack of a better term so that they can help both parties reach an understanding much more quickly. They have much more context surrounding their client’s medical history that’s important to you. They can communicate anything crucial to your diagnosis that a patient might forget about because they don’t know it’s essential.

Patient advocates can help generate different, more tailored options for their clients

Aside from improved communication, patient advocates can often help you provide more tailored patient treatment options due to their greater understanding of your patient’s healthcare concerns.

The simple truth is that you do not have the necessary time to spend with every patient to come up with the perfect patient care plan for them unless you run a concierge or direct primary care facility where you aren’t working with dozens of patients every day.

Case study

Dr. Maissel helped a client and doctor reach a better solution that neither of them had thought of:

“My client was concerned about becoming septic and was having some frustrations getting a solution that would alleviate her concerns in a way that didn’t stress her out. Her primary care physician told her that the next time she started running a fever, she should call their office so that they could get her on antibiotics right away.

I understand my client was extremely concerned about becoming septic, so I chimed in and asked the doctor if he would consider giving her a script. The doctor and patient had worked together long enough to know she wouldn’t abuse the system, and this way she would have the antibiotics on hand so she could begin taking them the second she developed symptoms.

He hadn’t considered that as an option because the standard way to do things was to have them call the moment they experienced symptoms, but that can take time, which my client was stressing about. It was an option that she didn’t know she had, and that he hadn’t considered because you usually don’t write scripts for antibiotics if there’s no sign of an infection.”

Without the patient advocate attending that appointment, the patient would have left frustrated and worried even though a perfectly serviceable solution was in place. After all, it’s standard procedure to suggest calling the office whenever you have a problem. As a doctor, you will address any concerns as quickly as possible, but those few extra hours can be unnecessarily stressful when patients are deeply concerned and worried.

It’s easy to underestimate how difficult it can be for patients to get through during a time of intense medical worry. Patients will sit by the phone waiting for you to call them back because they aren’t sure how concerned they should be. You might understand that their issue isn’t necessarily life or death, but they lack the context you do.

Professional health advocates are there to help you find the best solution for your patient. You are both trying to accomplish the exact same thing.

Resources needed to collaborate with patient advocates

Because health advocacy can be done digitally, your patient might hire an advocate who isn’t in the exact geographical location as you. While you can certainly get by just putting the advocate on speakerphone during appointments, it would be much more beneficial to all parties if you had some sort of telemedicine software.

Telemedicine software offers secure, HIPAA-compliant video conferencing which can make the entire process of working with a patient advocate much more seamless. Alongside video conferencing, telemedicine software can integrate with your EHR software, medical billing, or e-prescription software you might have.

Aside from making working with patient advocates easier, your patients want telemedicine. According to Software Advice’s 2022 State of Telemedicine Survey**, 91% of patients are more likely to select a provider who offers telemedicine over one who doesn’t.

The other vital resource you need to consider to maximize your collaboration with patient advocates is patient portals.

A patient portal allows your patients to access all their relevant medical information in one place to share with their advocate so that the advocate can remain up-to-date with everything they need to know. Additionally, it offers a way for the advocate to communicate with you and your office at any point during the day.

Related reading

For more information about how patient portals can help make your practice better, check out:

Patient advocates make your life easier as a doctor while improving patient outcomes

If a patient is going through the trouble of hiring an advocate, it’s likely because they or their family are frustrated with the healthcare system or feel like they aren’t being heard or taken care of the way they think they deserve. Most patients who hire an advocate will likely be your more difficult patients, so having another expert on your side whose purpose is to help you get the information you need should be viewed as a boon.

Dr. Maissel had some final words of encouragement for any doctor who might be on the fence about working with advocates:

“I work hard to help the doctor feel supported and aligned. I’m there to save them time.”

Dr. Gerda Maissel

If you need more resources about how to deal with difficult patients who might not have a patient advocate, check out Dealing With Difficult Patients: Strategies for Healthcare Professionals.

If you’re struggling to retain patients, you might want to consider improving your patient loyalty: Patient Loyalty: How To Turn New Patients into Lifelong Customers.


Survey methodology

*The Software Advice 2023 Consumer Wearables Survey was conducted in September 2023. It used screeners to narrow the survey audience down to 876 patients in the U.S. who had seen a healthcare provider within the past two years and who own and use personal wearable health trackers like Apple Watch or Fitbit.

**Software Advice conducted the 2022 State of Telemedicine Survey in August 2022 of 1002 respondents to learn more about telemedicine use and how it has been affected by the pandemic. Screening questions were used to narrow respondents to those with relevant experience with the subject matter.