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Patient advocates address patients' concerns

December 14, 2009|By CRYSTAL SCHELLE

Carolyn Carder knows that today's health-care system can be tough to navigate. And oftentimes, it can leave patients and their families confused.

As a patient advocate at Washington County Hospital, Carder helps to guide patients through the obstacle course.

"A patient advocate is fairly new - in at least the last 15 to 20 years in health care systems and hospitals," she said. "We do a lot of different things, but a patient advocate isn't the complaint department."

Patient advocates do help when a patient or family member believes that the hospital didn't meet their expectations of service. Or during crisis situations when the patient or family members need a resolution.

"Many times we aren't notified until after discharge," she said.

A patient advocate, Carder said, tries to be the neutral party. She compares it to the job of an ombudsman at a nursing home. In fact, she said, nearly 75 percent of the nation's hospitals have a patient advocate or patient representative.

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Rights and responsibilities

Washington County Hospital, like many other hospitals, has a Patient Bill of Rights. The bill of rights lists 23 patient's rights acknowledged by the hospital, including:

o To know by name the physician, nurses and staff members for your care.

o To know the reason you are given various tests and treatments and who the person are who give them to you.

o To request a consultation or second opinion from another physician.

o To have family involvement in your care if you desire.

o To be free from inappropriate use of restraints and seclusion.

But, Carder said, the Patient Bill of Rights also lists 10 responsibilities the hospital expects of patients, including:

o To know and follow hospital rules and regulation.

o To respect the privacy of your roommate.

o To be considerate of the rights of other patients and hospital personnel and to assist in the control of noise and the number of visitors you receive.

The entire Patient Bill of Rights can be read at www.washingtoncountyhospital.com/information/rights.asp.

From technical to personal

Patient advocates can help direct people to the right resources when a person is underinsured or not insured at all.

"I can't help them get insurance, but I can guide them to the places they can go," she said.

Or help with advance-care planning or advance directives.

Carder said her career has not always been dealing with patients. She holds a Bachelor of Science in medical technology and a Master of Business Administration from Frostburg State University. And for 22 years, she worked in laboratories.

Carder spent seven years as laboratory manager at Washington County Hospital before she decided on a career change after a management reorganization in 2003. It was then that she joined the patient advocacy department at the hospital.

"I had a good clinical background, so I was confident I could make the switch," she said.

There is no required certification or degree to be a patient advocate. That's why, she said, many who get into patient advocacy come from other careers such as nursing, social work or other areas in the health-care profession.

But Carder found a certification program at Cleveland State University, which was started through the Society of Health care Consumer Advocacy. In order to earn the certification, which she said is like a continuing education program, she had to complete 10 classes.

When she earned the certification this past September, she was in one of the first groups in the nation to do so.

Advocates need people skills

In addition to formal training, Carder said there are certain people skills a patient advocate should have.

"Some folks in medicine like to work behind the scenes," she said. "Other employees don't mind patient interaction."

Many times, she said, when a patient or family member contacts the patient advocate, he or she is upset. That's when an advocate needs to rely on those other skills.

Carder said for a patient, it's best for them to contact her as soon as possible if he or she is having a problem with their stay.

The first person to contact is the nursing or bedside staff for immediate care.

"We tell them that they are at their bedside and are the first patient advocates," she said.

The next step should be the clinical manager.

She said usually senior citizens are afraid to complain. She said she'd rather take a proactive approach while the patient is still under their care.

"Don't be afraid to not be happy," she said. "Let us be willing to help you here."

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