High Tech, Scalability and the Human Role of Health Advocates

Patient advocates provide the human touch needed by patients in crisis.

One aspect of healthcare that not enough people understand is about the role of technology for providing medical services: how it should be used, when it should be used, and why it should be used.

That disconnect in understanding creates a huge gap in the healthcare continuum that we patient advocates fill – immediately understood, instantly appreciated, and more than worth whatever a client will pay for it.

Put simply: tools can’t provide the hugs and reassurance that individuals crave, and need for survival.


There is a huge difference between directly providing care coordination, and using technology to do so.

  • Directly providing care means face-to-face, sit across from, look into the eyes of, one-on-one handholding.
  • Technology, in the form of telephones, the web, skype, IMs, online medical records, apps, the cloud, or any other digital or non-human format — is just a tool.
  • Tools are not providers and…
  • Providers are not tools.

Both are necessary, useful and appropriate when used correctly. For example:

  • If I am simply looking up information about my symptoms online, then all I need is tools – a computer, and access to the internet. I’m not looking (at that point) for a human being to help me. In fact, I’d probably prefer to be left alone with my tools. My interest is in obtaining information, to fulfill an intellectual need.
  • But if I’ve just been diagnosed with something difficult, or I’ve received an overwhelmingly huge hospital bill in which I see obvious errors, then a tool isn’t what I want – I want a human being to explain things and fix things for me. Even if my expectations are unrealistic – it’s a human being I must connect with to move forward. My interest is in obtaining reassurance, reducing my feelings of vulnerability, maybe curtailing my fear, fulfilling an emotional need.

This point came up recently in three separate conversations with people who really just do NOT get it. All three are in the process of building online tools for one audience or another, all relating in some way to advocacy, all talking about “scalability.”

Scalability, in this context, refers to the ability to grow a business by using technology as the interface with patients, in order to prevent having to hire real people to do that interfacing. So, for example, there are websites where you can “ask a doctor” where no one knows if there is really a doctor there at all. Behind the curtain of the internet, or a telephone, a patient has no idea who they are really talking to.

Now, if patients aren’t asking personal questions, if they are seeking only general information (like I described above) or if they are embarrassed about whatever the problem is (think STDs) – well then – scale away! Build what amounts to an anonymous tool and go for it! Support their intellectual needs! Mazel tov!

It’s the flipside where you’ll find patient advocates. We advocates are not tools – we are providers. We aren’t providing medical services, but we ARE providing handholding, information, support, peace-of-mind, problem-solving, assistance, and all those emotional needs that require interface with a real, warm, human being that our clients can lean on as needed. Clients don’t come to us because we understand cancer or medical bills. They come to us because they can talk to us about themselves and their personal needs, and we will answer them.

Further, providers aren’t scalable. You can add more of them, you can manage their time better, you can provide them with support themselves, even tools to use…. But as human beings, we still have only 24 hours in our days, and certain skills we bring to the table. There’s nothing scalable or high tech about providers at all.

Back in the 1990s, as the web was being used more and more by individuals, we called this “High Tech, High Touch” – knowing full well that high tech often led to the need for human connection. (Best example is something like Match.com – think about it.)

Advocates might use tools to do our work, but it’s not our tools we are being hired for. Tools like telephones or email or skype may be hybrids, but they are still tools only. They might be a bridge to the human touch. But they are only that – a bridge – a means. They represent the human being on the other end and make connection possible over a distance. But it’s the connection with the human being on the other side that clients crave – and will pay for.

Now you may better understand that role that we patient advocates play when it comes to those human beings who are our clients. We are the High Touch of their care journeys, and it’s a crucial role we play.

The next time you talk to a client, or a potential client, raise this point to them, and ask them why they contacted an advocate to help them. They won’t use terms like tools and technology – but they will tell you they needed a connection with someone who could hold their hands and help to solve their problems and relieve their fears and frustrations.

That’s your role. Embrace it – and you will succeed as an advocate.

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Agree? Disagree?

Share your experience or join the conversation!


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2 thoughts on “High Tech, Scalability and the Human Role of Health Advocates”

  1. Great point, Trisha. I believe there’s a lot of misinformation about how many people you can reach through a tech solution like a website that puts you in touch with a phantom doctor (and how much money it will save …).

    However, I still think a good technology tool can provide useful information that an overworked advocate might find helpful. For instance, my health plan texts reminders when it’s time for screenings. It can’t hurt to use something like that as a backup.

    1. Agreed, Monique! It’s just a matter of remembering that technology is only a tool, and should not be the main mode of delivery.

      A hammer doesn’t work without someone to hold it, guide it, and aim it to be used in just the right way.

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