Do I Have to Be a Nurse to Be a Patient Advocate?

The answer is simple. No.

So why do I ask this question? Earlier this month, while attending the NAHAC Conference, the question was asked by a number of people. As if the qualification to be an effective patient advocate relied on a nursing education.

Now please don’t get me wrong. I am a huge supporter of nurses and nursing, in its many important forms. I’ve written many times at about nurses, nurse practitioners, and why I believe training as a nurse is far more patient-centered than other forms of medical training. Most of my commentary comes from my appreciation for the “whole patient” approach most nurses provide. I’m a fan – a BIG fan – of nurses and the nursing model for patient care.

Here are five reasons why a patient advocate does not need to come from a nursing background:

1. Patient advocates actually perform a number of services, many of which have nothing to do with nursing. Some are medical bill reviewers, some do research and writing about medical problems…. Nursing isn’t the right background or training for these kinds of services.

2. Patient advocates are facilitators, but they are not decision-makers. Patient advocates do not perform medical functions. They provide options and background information to their patients, but never make decisions on their patients’ behalf. Since they aren’t making medical decisions, they don’t even need a medical background. (Not to say a medical background wouldn’t be helpful. It might be. It just isn’t necessary.)

3. No matter what the background of the patient advocate, he or she knows when it is time to find helpful resources to help his or her client. If the advocate is a nurse, then she knows when to call in a doctor or an insurance expert. If the advocate is not a nurse, then she knows when to call in a nurse if one is needed. That means a patient advocate can have almost any type of background and experience…. He will simply set up his system of resource people accordingly.

4. Patients who need an advocate’s help are all over the map when it comes to what they can afford. Someone who is not a nurse, or does not have medical training, will charge less (or should charge less) in many instances than an advocate who does have nursing training, making him more affordable than someone who does have a nursing or medical education.

5. Finally – to make my points – some of the best known and most effective patient advocates, real pioneers in our emerging business of patient advocacy, have no nursing experience or education in their background. Ken Schueler, perhaps the premier patient advocate in the United States and abroad, does not have an MD or RN after his name. (He did study at Sarah Lawrence in its patient advocacy course.). Elisabeth Schuler Russell learned her skills while advocating for her baby daughter.

Smart advocates will find their training where they can, when they need it, for a particular reason. For example, an advocate who decides to focus on cancer patients might take courses in understanding oncology. Or an advocate who needs help understanding extensive medical terminology might take a course to better understand it.

All nurses are patient advocates. But not all patient advocates need to be nurses to begin with.

If you are considering a career as a patient advocate, then start where you are planted. But start.


Updates on this post:

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6 thoughts on “Do I Have to Be a Nurse to Be a Patient Advocate?”

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  2. Hi Trisha,
    I agree with all of your points except the fourth. As a Patient Advocate educated by an accredited program which is run by an accredited university (The Alfus Patient Advocacy Program at the University of Miami), I believe not only is my worth as valuable as a nurse, I believe I bring more value to the profession, because I have been trained specifically to be a Patient Advocate.

    The Alfus Patient Advocacy program is not a weekend workshop, nor is it a seminar. It is a yearlong rigorous academic program, covering all aspects of Patient Advocacy. This program has given me the tools, skills, ethics, and compassion to successfully advocate for my clients. It has allowed me to open a thriving patient advocacy practice and establish trust and credibility with my clients and the healthcare community.

    For the above reasons, I do not believe I “should” be paid less than a nurse. My service is just as valuable and respected. A point you yourself make in your fifth and final point!

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  5. Jacqueline O’Doherty, with all due respect, saying you should be paid the same as an RN is like saying a paralegal should be paid the same a lawyer. A dental hygienist should be paid the same as a dentist or a podiatrist should be paid the same as a foot and ankle surgeon.

    No matter how smart or experienced that person may be, he/she cannot leapfrog over years of direct client experience in challenging sometimes life threatening situations. Unless as Trisha points out, you become a specialist with increase knowledge in a particular area such as cancer care and focus your practice on only that.

    There is a lot of anatomy and pathophysiology that may need to be considered if the patient has a complicated health problem that can easily be overlooked by a layperson. I am sure you provide your clients excellent thorough care but realizing your own limitations will better serve them.

    1. S. White, perhaps you should understand the definition of a patient advocate. We do not practice medicine, and do not influence our clients (not patients) in their medical decision making. We do make sure they have all the information they need, understand the risks, benefits and options of each treatment or procedure available to them.
      This enables the client to make an educated decision and give true informed consent.

      I am perfectly aware that I did not go to nursing school. That is why I am not a nurse and do not give medical advice. No Patient Advocate gives medical advice or practices medicine. That is left to the doctors, APNs, PA’s and nurses.
      My job is to make sure that that group of people are focused on my client’s overall well being, not just the medical practitioners individual specialty. A huge problem in health care is the lack of communication among the caregivers, the patient advocates job is to the navigate the healthcare system to ensure the client gets the care they need.

      I absolutely realize my own limitations, which is why I am an excellent patient advocate.
      I would hope that you do the same.

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