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Patient Advocacy — a Complete 360

Posted on | January 4, 2008 | No Comments

A Health Care Professional on the Outside Looking In

Dodging your responsibility as a patient advocate for you or your family member could have devastating results. 

As a health care professional on the front lines of the health care system, I understand exactly how important it is for patients and their families to take charge and be an advocate for their health.  In my role as an administrative head nurse I always encourage patients and family members to always be proactive in their health care. 

As a media broadcaster, I always encourage the listeners to speak up and ask questions. In my “outro” I usually sign off with something like, “Thanks everyone for listening, stay safe and as always be in charge of your health, speak up and ask questions.  Have a great week.  I’m Barbara Ficarra for Health in 30.  See you next week.”  In fact, one of the tag lines for Healthin30.com is Always Speak. Ask. Know! ™  

The Joint Commission, otherwise known as JCAHO, launched a national campaign in 2002 to urge patients to become active in their health care to help prevent errors.  Speak Up™ encourages patients to:

“Speak up if you have questions or concerns, and if you don’t understand, ask again. It’s your body and you have a right to know. Pay attention to the care you are receiving. Make sure you’re getting the right treatments and medications by the right health care professionals. Don’t assume anything. Educate yourself about your diagnosis, the medical tests you are undergoing, and your treatment plan.  Ask a trusted family member or friend to be your advocate. Know what medications you take and why you take them. Medication errors are the most common health care mistakes. Use a hospital, clinic, surgery center, or other type of health care organization that has undergone a rigorous on-site evaluation against established state-of-the-art quality and safety standards, such as that provided by The Joint Commission.  Participate in all decisions about your treatment. You are the center of the health care team.”

As a consumer of health care, and as an advocate for family members, I understand how imperative it is to be involved in the health care process.  I understand how critical communication is between the staff, patient and their family members.

Communication between patients and health care professionals is critical for positive patient outcomes.  Communication is imperative for patient safety and good quality patient care.  Any breakdown in communication will result in a breakdown of quality patient care, and the results can be devastating.

In a hospital, which is a very fast-paced environment, where seconds can mean the difference between life and death, it’s crucial that communication flows consistently and thoroughly between patients, their families and staff.  Speaking up and communicating needs to be continuous.

Now with that said, taking charge of one’s health — asking questions and speaking up — sounds really easy, and in theory, yes; absolutely, and without a doubt it is.  After all, this is my mantra.  This is what JCAHO encourages.  This is definitely what is imperative for great health care. 

But what happens when “speaking up" isn’t looked upon so enthusiastically by staff? What happens when the staff — both nurses and physicians — view the patient or family member as “difficult” because they ask so many questions?  What happens when questions go unanswered, what happens when information one is trying to obtain is not so easily accessible?   

My role suddenly changed when I became the outsider looking in.  In February of last year an elderly family member was admitted to the hospital for heart disease.  Complications set in and I suddenly found that I became the one asking questions. Although my family member was alert and oriented, being in the hospital was a frightening and overwhelming experience and she needed the assistance of a trusted family member by her side to speak on her behalf.

I became the family member; the patient advocate.  I became the one asking questions.  No longer was I in control.  I was the “visitor,” “the family member.”  I was in a strange environment, and in an unfamiliar hospital.  I was out of my realm of all things professional.  Suddenly, I was at the mercy of a health care system.

I was just a “family member,” “just a visitor,” “just a stranger,” and “just a patient advocate.”  My mantra, “Always Speak. Ask. Know!” played over and over again in my mind, and it’s a good thing because this process of being a patient advocate was exhausting.  Trying to obtain information was almost an impossible feat; trying to find out why the safety of my family member was compromised was like trying to climb Mt. Everest; a struggle to say the least.  Information did not flow easily between the staff and the “patient advocate.”  How did this hospital have a breakdown in communication that left my family member’s safety compromised?

Although the sequences of events have been overwhelmingly frustrating and exhausting, I continued to be on the outside looking in.  I continued to be the patient advocate.  I continued to ask questions.  I continued to make sure that this hospital was doing everything in its power so the safety of my family member was not compromised again.  I continued to Speak Up.™   I continued to “Always Speak. Ask. Know! ™ 

I will continue to sign-off the Health in 30™ radio show by always encouraging the listeners to take charge of their health, to speak up and ask questions.  It’s simply a matter of life and death, and it doesn’t matter if you are a health professional or not; never underestimate your concerns, always be proactive and never assume. Always communicate in a proper manner.  Voice your concerns and get your message across by being respectful.  Speak to someone the way in which you would like to be spoken to.  You don’t need to bully staff; communicate in a proper manner.  Always take charge of your health, speak up and ask questions.  Thankfully, my hospital experience as an “outsider looking in” turned out OK; exhausting, but OK.

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