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How to Advocate for Patients as a Nurse Practitioner

Written by: University of Tulsa   •  Dec 20, 2023
A Nurse Kneeling and Talking With a Teenage Patient in a Wheelchair.

How to Advocate for Patients as a Nurse Practitioner

There is much debate in the medical field as to what constitutes the best form of patient care. Ideally, all patients should receive high-quality care in an environment that is safe and that makes them feel comfortable. Additionally, patients should feel that their views and opinions are considered by their health care providers when determining their treatment plans.

However, the health care system could benefit from improvements. Patients face numerous challenges when it comes to understanding their bills and knowing how their insurance works. Additionally, patients often require assistance comprehending the information that enables them to make informed decisions about their treatment. This is a significant problem for older patients who may find navigating today’s health care system confusing, and that it does not successfully meet their needs. Further, older patients may have a difficult time speaking up for themselves. To address a large number of these issues, many nurses are learning how to advocate for patients who need additional support.

Nurses who act as patient advocates help their patients address their unmet needs, protect their patients’ rights, and prioritize educating their patients so they can make better decisions. Adult gerontology acute care nurse practitioners (AG-ACNPs) are uniquely equipped to advocate for older patients because they understand the clinical elements of treating this population as well as how the health care system works. In addition to having a passion for patient advocacy, aspiring AG-ACNPs need to pursue an advanced nursing education that prepares them to serve as a voice for older patients.

The Growth of the Older Patient Population

Why is there such a demand for advocates to help older patients? Primarily because the number of older patients is growing at a record rate. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the population of people aged 65 and older experienced its fastest growth rate in the past century from 2010 to 2020. For additional context, older people represented 4.7% of the U.S. population in 1920; in 2020, they represented approximately 16.8% of the population.

Essentially, the country’s population of older people has more than tripled over the past hundred years. This is relevant to the health care industry for two main reasons. First, older people are statistically the most likely to have chronic conditions that must be managed. According to the National Council on Aging (NCOA), 95% of adults who are aged 60 or over have at least one chronic condition while 80% have at least two chronic conditions.

The second reason why this population’s growth is relevant to health care is that chronic conditions and diseases are statistically costly to manage. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) attributes 90% of the nation’s $4.1 billion annual health care costs to chronic and mental health conditions. As the nation’s older population grows, the chronic condition issue will grow along with it.

Considering how older patients are often faced with complex and difficult situations and decisions regarding their health care, nurses can make a significant difference in their well-being by acting as their advocates. To get involved, nurses can learn more about how to advocate for patients.

What Is Patient Advocacy?

In a broad sense, patient advocates assist and guide patients as they navigate the health care system. Essentially, they help patients in any way they can to ensure their needs are met. Patient advocates may do any of the following:

  • Assist patients in setting up appointments with physicians or specialists
  • Help patients find alternative physicians for a second opinion
  • Identify resources for patients that provide support and assistance
  • Help patients understand, negotiate, and resolve disputes regarding their medical bills and insurance
  • Serve as a liaison for patients in communicating with their health care providers
  • Explain complex medical information to patients in language and terms they understand
  • Help patients understand their care options and guide them to the decision that best aligns with their health care needs
  • Serve as a voice for patients who cannot speak for themselves
  • Assist patients with forms, applications, and other administrative tasks
  • Review patients’ medical charts and documents for accuracy
  • Protect patients’ rights, honor their values, and ensure their safety
  • Help patients retain their autonomy
  • Coordinate with patients’ family members to keep everyone on the same page about the next steps, treatment options, and other relevant information

How NPs Can Advocate for Patients

Learning how to advocate for patients starts with having a patient-first mentality and possessing the wherewithal to guide patients through the multifaceted challenges of the health care process. Nurses who want to advocate for their patients should follow some core tenets:

  • Be aware of their practice authority
  • Have an in-depth understanding of the community they service
  • Develop ways to fill care gaps and meet needs in their community
  • Continue their education to stay up-to-date on evolving trends, policies, and skills

NPs can also follow some basic steps to advocate for their patients on an individual level. These include:

  • Ascertain the patient’s individual needs, values, background, and awareness of health services.
  • Allow the patients to choose their own treatment based on their goals.
  • Create an advocacy plan with other members of the patient’s health care team.
  • Assess and monitor the results of the plan, including the family’s, health care team’s, and patient’s satisfaction.

Types of Advocacy

NPs can advocate for patients in different ways. Here are three types of patient advocacy in nursing.

  • Health care facility advocacy. In health care facilities, NPs can act as liaisons between the patient and other members of their health care team. This could mean explaining needs or values specific to the patient, explaining unclear instructions, or communicating challenges.
  • Legal advocacy. NPs can help patients work through legal or bureaucratic obstructions to get the care and services they need. This may include providing resources or working to ensure patients can obtain needed medication or access to specific services. Sometimes, this type of advocacy can lead to policy changes that benefit entire communities.
  • Family advocacy. NPs also advocate for their patients’ families. This can be done by explaining diagnoses or treatments to families and loved ones or answering any questions they have. They can also help families secure needed resources and mediate between family members and patients if there are disagreements about treatments.

Support Our Nation’s Older Adults as a Patient Advocate

Older adults, particularly those who are facing chronic conditions, must have the support they need to navigate the health care system, understand their options, and get the information required to make informed decisions. Further, patients with disabilities or terminal illnesses benefit greatly from having someone who can speak on their behalf and communicate their needs.

Advanced practice registered nurses who wish to focus on patient advocacy should explore their education options. The University of Tulsa’s post-master’s AG-ACNP certificate program is designed with the working nurse in mind, consisting of three 16-week semesters that are taught by advanced practitioners and nurse educators. In addition to developing acute care clinical skills, students in the AG-ACNP program learn how to advocate for patients and the many ways they can get involved.

Explore the AG-ACNP certificate program further to see how it aligns with your professional aspirations in patient advocacy.

Recommended Readings

A Nurse Educator’s Role in the Future of Nursing

How to Become an APRN

The Most Important Leadership Skills for Nurses

Sources

Beacon Senior Advisors, 5 Ways Nurses Advocate for Senior Patients

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Health and Economic Costs of Chronic Diseases

Indeed, “11 Patient Advocacy Examples in Nursing (Plus Types)”

Institute on Aging, “Patient Advocacy: When You Need Someone to Go to Bat for Your Senior”

International Journal of Older People Nursing, “Nursing Support for Older People’s Autonomy in Residential Care: An Integrative Review”

Johns Hopkins Medicine, “The Power of a Health Care Advocate”

National Council on Aging, “Get the Facts on Chronic Disease Self-Management”

National Council on Aging, “The Top 10 Most Common Chronic Conditions in Older Adults”

National Patient Advocate Foundation, Home

The Nurse Practitioner, “There Is Power in Advocacy”

Onward Healthcare, “The Role of Nurses in Patient Advocacy”

SAGE Open Nursing, “Nurses Who Assume the Role of Advocate for Older Hospitalized Patients: A Qualitative Study”

U.S. Census Bureau, “2020 Census: 1 in 6 People in the United States Were 65 and Over”

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