All health care professionals, including nurses, must be advocates for their patients, according to S.E. Shannon, writing for the Hastings Center Report. Discover what advocacy means and how nurses can be effective advocates in their professional lives.
What Patient Advocacy Means
Patient advocacy is any activity or behavior benefiting patients, according to Trish Torrey of VeryWell. She states that patient advocacy can refer to the caregiving nurses and other health care professionals provide as well as the actions of organizations that develop and implement policies to improve treatment and health care systems.
The Society of Radiographers builds on this definition, stating that patient advocacy concerns promoting and protecting patient and service-user interests. This definition makes clear that patient needs come first in advocacy, above those of the nurse, other health care 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 the nurse would make. Nurses may also advocate for their patients to prevent them from undergoing incompetent, unethical, or illegal medical procedures. This kind of patient advocacy could put nurses at odds with their work colleagues.
Speak Up For Patients
Speaking up for patients and their wants and needs is one of the best ways nurses can advocate for those they are caring for, according to American Traveler‘s article “The Reality of Patient Advocacy in Nursing.” That is especially true when patient safety and well-being is threatened, according to S.E. Shannon.
The American Traveler piece says that individuals can feel intimidated in the health care system. They may not understand their rights or the options available to them. They may also feel apprehensive about voicing these rights to medical professionals. It is the role of nurse patient advocates to ascertain the desires of the people they 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.
Shannon adds that due to their close monitoring of patients, nurses may see changes in health before other members of the health care team. It is, therefore, their duty to address these matters urgently before the patient’s health is further compromised.
Christine Contillo, a registered nurse writing for Working Nurse, stressed that nurses must choose their words carefully, especially when speaking to doctors and around patients and their loved ones. Telling a doctor he or she has not ordered enough pain medications challenges the doctor’s authority. Should patients and loved ones hear this exchange, they may also question the doctor’s competence. Contillo says speaking to the doctor in private, noting the patient seems uncomfortable and suggesting an alternative pain medication drug or greater dose, is likely to be more effective.
Understand Patient Needs and Wants
It is difficult to speak up on a patient’s behalf if you are unsure of what he or she needs or wants. Lampert, in Ausmed, says nurses should not assume they know their patients’ requirements and desires. Otherwise, they risk advocating for their own desires or those of the patients’ loved ones, rather than for their patients’.
Some needs will be apparent when you review the medical records. Others require honest communication with the patient. Only when you have discussed wishes and goals for treatment can you truly advocate on a patient’s behalf. For example, if a person does not want to be resuscitated in the event that he or she might need to be, you should not resuscitate him, even if there is a strong chance of a good medical outcome or you face 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 Outside Your Health Care Facility
American Traveler stresses patient advocacy does not only happen within health care environments. It encourages nurses to join advocacy groups centered on health care topics they are passionate about. For example, a nurse practitioner who has a Master of Science in Nursing specializing in adult-gerontology may join an organization committed to advocating for older Americans, like Senior Advocacy Services or Elder Advocacy Group. Advocacy groups such as these rely on health care professionals like 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, registered nurse Christine Contillo shared her experiences at a Philip Morris International shareholder meeting.
Contillo suggests 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 is 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. Assertive nurses make it clear they will not retreat when advocating. They are also willing to broach topics that others may be uncomfortable talking about. When nurses raise their voices and refuse to listen to alternative points of view, their approach to advocacy moves from assertiveness to aggression.
Advocating aggressively is unlikely to get the best result, according to a 2015 study by Andreas Jäger, David D. Loschelder, and Malte Friese published in the European Review of Social Psychology. It found the results of negotiations are less satisfactory when any party expresses themselves with anger or aggression.