Patient Advocacy, Nursing, and You

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Written by Marie Hasty, BSN, RN Content Writer, IntelyCare
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Reviewed by Danielle Roques, BSN, RN Content Writer, IntelyCare
A nurse demonstrates patient advocacy nursing.

In a busy emergency department, nurse Javier walks by a room when he hears a female patient moaning in pain. He goes into her room and quickly assesses her pain level. He knows her nurse is busy with other patients, but he seeks her out and asks about what pain medication she can have. Even though he doesn’t have much spare time, he pulls her as-needed pain medication and gives it to her before getting back to his patients.

This is a simple example of patient advocacy. Nursing encourages such actions. Even though the patient wasn’t Javier’s, he recognized that he could improve her status by advocating on her behalf. While some patient advocates are nurses, not all of them are. Patient advocates can come from a variety of backgrounds, such as nursing, social work, and chaplaincy.

What does it mean to act as a patient advocate? And how can you incorporate more advocacy into your work as a nurse? Let’s dig into the ways patient advocacy, nursing practice, and your career options intersect.

What Is a Patient Advocate?

There is such a thing as a professional patient advocate in healthcare who works with patients, families, and care teams to coordinate goals and make sure a patient gets the best care possible. These professionals typically work with patients and families as they navigate treatments for complex or chronic illnesses, helping overcome barriers to care.

They can work for hospitals and are sometimes called nurse navigators within healthcare systems, risk management teams, and discharge planning. They can also work privately with families through agencies and nonprofits. Patient navigators and advocates help improve both patient experiences and clinical outcomes.

What Does a Patient Advocate Do?

Navigating the healthcare system can be confusing and frustrating, especially if you or a family member are urgently sick. Professional patient advocates anticipate patients’ needs and figure out ways to solve them. This might look like planning transportation to appointments, helping families arrange grocery deliveries, or sitting in with patients during medical appointments.

The context in which a patient advocate works will determine what kinds of support they offer their patients. For example, a nurse advocate might be especially suited to educate patients on medical decisions, while a social work advocate might guide patients to apply for financial assistance.

What Is Patient Advocacy in Nursing?

Advocating for patients is a core value within professional nursing, and speaking up is an integral part of being a great nurse. While some nurses might be professional patient advocates, all nurses have autonomy and can advocate for their patients to get the best care possible.

Within different specialties, here are some examples of how a nurse might practice patient advocacy:

  • Calling out unsafe staffing ratios on an adult med-surg unit
  • Reporting signs of child abuse in a pediatric unit
  • Calling for a time-out to verify a procedure in the operating room
  • Requesting a different vasopressor for a patient in the cardiovascular ICU
  • Asking about a patient’s birth plan in a labor and delivery unit
  • Requesting that a patient with an urgent problem be treated quickly in triage

The Importance of Patient Advocacy in Nursing

Patient advocacy is a core component of nursing philosophy and practice. But clinical practice isn’t the only place where nurses can advocate for patients, each other, and the healthcare system at large. Nursing advocacy in the community and in the political sphere has resulted in major improvements in healthcare policy and patient care, both in the U.S. and internationally:

  • The Patient Care and Hospital Education and Training Act (PCHETA), Cancer Drug Parity Act, and Lymphedema Treatment Act were passed because of nursing advocacy on Capitol Hill.
  • Nurses in Papua New Guinea led a project to provide HIV and AIDS testing and education for local communities.
  • Federal advocacy by nurses helped urge the Biden administration to propose minimum staffing standards in nursing homes.

Additionally, professional nurse advocates (PNAs) are specifically trained nurses who advocate for other nurses. This role is currently only available in the UK, but these nurses work towards quality improvement and help staff improve their health and well-being. Even though American nurses can’t hold the PNA credential, you can still work to advocate through shared governance, fair staffing ratios, and better treatment for nursing professionals.

Patient Advocacy Examples for Nurses

These are some ways that a nurse can help patients get care that is personalized to their goals.

  • Communication: Acting as a liaison between patients and healthcare providers, helping patients convey their concerns and preferences.
  • Informed consent: Assisting patients in understanding medical procedures, treatment plans, and their rights, ensuring they make informed decisions about their care.
  • Navigating resources: Guiding patients through complex healthcare systems, helping them access necessary resources, support services, and financial assistance programs.
  • Conflict resolution: Resolving disputes or misunderstandings between patients and healthcare professionals, ensuring patient needs are addressed without compromising care quality.
  • Support in end-of-life care: Providing emotional support and facilitating discussions about end-of-life care preferences, including advanced directives and palliative care options.

How to Become a Professional Patient Advocate: 4 Steps

1. Go to Nursing School

If you’re looking to specialize in patient advocacy, nursing school is your first step. To become a nurse, you’ll need a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) — it’s the preferred degree for this role — so this may take between four to six years. If you’re already an ADN, going back for your bachelor degree may take as little as a year of online classes.

2. Become an RN

Once you’ve graduated from nursing school, it’s time to sit for your board exam. Passing the National Council Licensure Exam (NCLEX-RN) will make you an RN. Learn more about the newest generation of the NCLEX.

3. Gain Experience

Patient advocacy roles require expertise in hospital systems, disease and medication management, and medical communication. You will likely need three to five years of clinical experience — in specialties like hospice, pediatrics, and more — before becoming a patient advocate or navigator.

4. Patient Advocacy Nursing Certification

Once you have clinical experience, you can start applying to roles in patient advocacy. These are most common in large healthcare systems, where complex patients go for care. You can deepen your patient advocacy skill set by taking a course or getting certified. These are the leading certifications for patient navigators:

Beyond Patient Advocacy: Nursing Career Advocacy

As a nurse, you advocate for patients every shift. But what about advocating for your career and your schedule? Check out our extensive range of nursing jobs that can fit your life with IntelyCare.