The Patient Advocate
Professionals help families when loved ones are hospitalized
By Jean Jeffers, Staff Writer

Receiving health care today is a challenge. It often involves participation in a system that is time consuming and complicated. While there are many efforts today to simplify and safeguard this system from errors, nevertheless errors are made daily. Questions about practice are often lost in the asking, and patients are left to fend for themselves.

But a new trend is emerging: the fast-growing field of patient advocacy. Formal programs are being developed for assisting patients with their medical needs and doing patient advocacy. Many patients and their families are hiring private professional health advocates (PPHAs). Many of these advocates are experienced RNs who guide the patient and family through the confusion of modern healthcare.

“The healthcare system has become so complex and profit driven, patients get lost in the shuffle,” said Toni Dreher, founder of North Shore Patient Advocates LLC ( in Chicago. “Up to 440,000 patients die in the hospital each year due to medical errors. Patients need someone knowledgeable speaking and watching out solely for them.”

Some patient advocates offer medical assistance that requires knowledge of the health care system and a medical background. They are usually retired RNs and doctors or someone who has spent years in the medical field. There are, in addition, patient advocates who are employed by hospitals and others who help primarily with insurance and insurance filings.

Dreher’s first attempt at advocating was in an intervention she made on behalf of her father-in-law. Despite a life-threatening blood clot, the hospital that was treating him was set to release him. Dreher successfully intervened, but it made her wonder: What if he hadn’t had a nurse in the family watching out for him? Now well established in her business, Dreher uses a team approach to look out for patients during hospitalization. Her services include:

  • helping patients and their families become more knowledgeable about their diagnosis;
  • asking doctors questions a lay person wouldn’t know to ask;
  • getting all the facts;
  • researching all treatment options;
  • researching and identifying the best doctor, hospital and/or nursing home for a patient; and
  • helping take care of insurance claims.

If you are or a family member is hospitalized and you cannot hire a patient advocate, a family member may serve the purpose. Dreher offers the following tips for advocating for a sick family member:

  • Become proactive. Prepare a summary sheet for your loved one in advance, covering all health conditions, allergies and names of physicians, and keep a current list of medications so if the patient is hospitalized, there is a record.
  • Educate yourself about a loved one’s medical condition but choose your sources carefully. Talk with the patient’s family doctor and/or specialists if possible.
  • Consult the National Institute of Health (NIH) for information.
  • Choose all doctors carefully. Ask a trusted healthcare professional for a recommendation.
  • Try to avoid hospitalization, especially if the patient is elderly.

In the event of hospitalization, Dreher says family advocates must:

  1. Realize vigilance is required because medical personnel may make mistakes.
  2. Pay attention, take notes, provide information and ask questions.
  3. Organize shifts among relatives.
  4. Take notes and jot down information such as the names of hospital personnel seeing the patient, as well as your observations.
  5. Make questions count. Don’t ask a doctor a question a nurse could answer.
  6. Make sure the staff wear gloves and use hand sanitizer before touching the patient.
  7. Know you are allowed to request medical records.
  8. Be especially vigilant during admission and discharge; this is when hospital personnel are working extra fast and are likely to make mistakes.