Today’s nurses don’t just provide care. They provide advocacy. And if you want to be the best nurse you can, you should know the ins and outs of what it means to be a good patient advocate.
All healthcare professionals, including nurses, must be advocates for their patients, according to S.E. Shannon, writing for the Hastings Center Report.
But patient advocacy involves more than providing treatment to those in need. Discover what advocacy in today’s healthcare environments means, and how you can learn to be an effective advocate in your own nursing career.
What does patient advocacy mean?
Patient advocacy is any activity or behavior benefiting patients, according to Trish Torrey of Verywell Health. As Torrey explains, advocating for patients can refer to the care that nurses and other healthcare professionals provide, as well as the actions of organizations that develop and implement policies to improve treatment and healthcare systems.
The Society of Radiographers builds on this definition, stating that advocacy for patients concerns promoting and protecting the interests of patients and service users. This definition makes it clear that the needs of patients come first in advocacy — before those of nurses, other healthcare professionals, and families and friends.
For example, the Society of Radiographers notes that when nurses work as patient advocates, they inform patients of their options and support their treatment decisions, even if they are not the decisions nurses would make.
As anurse, you may also advocate for your patients to prevent them from undergoing incompetent, unethical, or illegal medical procedures. This kind of patient advocacy could put you at odds with your colleagues, but it also helps establish necessary trust between patients and their caregivers so patients know they are receiving the best care.
The best nurses speak up for their patients.
Speaking up for patients and their wants and needs is one of the best ways you can advocate for those in your care, according to travel nursing agency American Traveler. That is especially true when patient safety and well-being are threatened, according to S.E. Shannon.
American Traveler says that individuals can feel intimidated in the healthcare system. They may not understand their rights or the options available to them. They may also feel apprehensive about voicing these concerns to medical professionals.
It’s your responsibility as a nurse and patient advocate to ascertain the desires of the people you treat and ensure those desires are articulated to others involved in patient care, including doctors, social workers, and other nurses. Lynda Lampert, a Philadelphia-based registered nurse writing for Ausmed, says nurses may also need to speak up for patients when addressing family members and loved ones.
Because of nurses’ close monitoring of patients, Shannon adds, a nurse may see changes in a patient’s health before other members of the healthcare team do. Therefore, it’s your duty as a nurse to address these matters urgently before the patient’s health is further compromised.
Christine Contillo, a registered nurse writing for Working Nurse, stresses that nurses must choose their words carefully, especially when speaking with doctors and around patients and their loved ones. For example, telling a doctor he or she has not ordered enough pain medication challenges the doctor’s authority. Should patients and their loved ones hear this exchange, they may also question the doctor’s competence.
Contillo says speaking with the doctor in private — noting the patient seems uncomfortable and suggesting an alternative pain medication or greater dose — is likely to be more effective.
A patient advocate understands patient needs and wants.
It’s difficult to speak up on a patient’s behalf if you’re unsure of what the patient wants or needs.
Lampert, in Ausmed, says nurses should not assume they know their patients’ requirements and desires. In making such assumptions, they risk advocating for their own desires or those of the patients’ loved ones, rather than for their patients.
Some patient needs will be apparent when a nurse reviews the patient’s medical record. To address other needs, the nurse must have honest communication with the patient. Only when nurses have discussed wishes and goals for treatment can they truly advocate on a patient’s behalf.
For example, if a person does not want to be resuscitated in any event, the nurse should not resuscitate that patient, even if there is a strong chance of a good medical outcome or if that nurse faces resistance from the patient’s family.
Lampert reminds nurses that some information is more subtle and not expressed through verbal communication. Paying attention to body language can help nurses ask more direct questions to determine their patients’ needs and wants.
Look for opportunities for advocacy beyond the healthcare facility.
American Traveler stresses that patient advocacy doesn’t happen only within healthcare environments. As a nurse, you can join advocacy groups centered on healthcare topics you’re passionate about.
For example, a nurse practitioner who has a Master of Science in Nursing with a specialization in adult-gerontology may join an organization committed to advocating for older Americans, such as Senior Advocacy Services or Elder Advocacy Group. Advocacy groups such as these rely on healthcare professionals, including nurses, to raise awareness and provide insight into the issues older patients face.
At times, nurses can also advocate for patients at conferences, seminars, and annual meetings. For example, in her article for Working Nurse, Contillo shares her experiences at a Philip Morris International shareholder meeting. Contillo suggests that even writing a formal letter urging companies or political figures to act to improve patient outcomes can be another effective form of patient advocacy.
American Traveler urges nurses to consider how much time they can spare for patient advocacy outside professional obligations. While the efforts of advocacy groups and other nurses raising awareness are vital for patients, it’s also important that nurses never take on more than they can competently handle.
Be assertive, but not aggressive.
Lampert says nurses must be assertive when advocating for patients — but never aggressive. If you’re assertive, you make it clear you won’t retreat when advocating. You also show that you’re willing to broach topics that others may be uncomfortable talking about.
However, if you raise your voice and refuse to listen to alternative points of view, your approach to advocacy moves from assertiveness to aggression.
Advocating for patients aggressively is unlikely to lead to the best result, according to a 2015 study by Andreas Jager, David D. Loschelder, and Malte Friese, published in the European Review of Social Psychology. It found the results of negotiations are less satisfactory when parties express themselves with anger or aggression.
Learn more about patient advocacy in nursing.
If you’re an aspiring nurse, or if you’re looking to become a better patient advocate, pursuing an advanced nursing degree can help you become a more effective health practitioner and leader.
Check out Maryville University’s online Master of Science in Nursing program, and learn how it provides a path for you to develop these skills and other high-demand, important abilities.