Registered nurses (RNs) provide a range of care for their patients, but one of the most effective ways for them to influence positive clinical outcomes, both at the individual and structural level, is to be a patient advocate.
Advocacy begins with being engaged and attentive to patients and extends through dealing with red tape that may affect care. Though many medical facilities have professional patient representatives, RNs are ideally placed to collaborate with fellow nurses, physicians, and administrators to offer patients the most complete care possible.
Duquesne University covers patient advocacy in its online RN-BSN program, which allows RNs to earn their BSN degrees without having to put their service to patients on hold.
Today’s healthcare landscape is increasingly complex. As technology rapidly evolves and healthcare policies and delivery change, it is becoming increasingly evident that patients need someone to trust.
“An advocate is one who pleads the cause of another, and a patient advocate is an advocate for clients’ rights,” nursing website RN Central explains in its article, “What Exactly Is Patient Advocacy?”
“In that role, the nurse protects the client’s human and legal rights and provides assistance in asserting those rights if the need arises.”
RNs advocate for patients in numerous settings and provide a wide variety of services, including providing information about treatment options, translating medical jargon into a language the patient can understand, and informing superiors of recurring patient complaints. Advocacy can be particularly crucial for elderly patients, whose needs and requests are more likely to be dismissed because of issues such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.
Patient advocacy is such an important part of nursing that is included in the Code of Ethics for Nurses.
“To not advocate on behalf of a patient – even if it means jumping the chain of command or getting right up in a nurse manager’s, hospital administrator’s, or healthcare provider’s face – is a deviation from standard of care,” according to the Medscape article, “Patient Advocacy: The Nurse’s Responsibility.”
Not all advocates are the same, however. There is a significant difference between professional, hospital-appointed patient representatives and RNs acting as patient advocates.
“In some health systems and with some insurance companies and hospitals, patient advocates are offered,” Ruth Linden, Ph.D., president and founder of Tree of Life Health Advocates, told online financial publication The Simple Dollar. “But what these people really are is customer service representatives. They’re not independent because they work for the organization.”
Medical errors are another reason patient advocacy is so crucial. A recent study by Johns Hopkins revealed that in the United States, preventable medical errors are the third leading cause of death, topped only by cancer and heart disease. Another study by the Journal of Patient Safety estimates 440,000 people in the U.S. die annually because of medical errors, many of which were initially unnoticed or unreported. Multiple studies show a clear link between nurses with a higher education, such as a BSN or an MSN, and a decrease in patient mortality and increased quality in patient care.
The need for patient advocacy is so significant that the Institute of Medicine (IOM) recently called for all nurses to advocate for their patients. “Many times,” according to the IOM statement, “for the sake of delivering exceptional patient and family care, nurses must step into an advocate role with a singular voice.”
Advocating for patients is not always easy or straightforward task. “Nurses have reported fear of retaliation, being reprimanded, how others will respond, and appearing incompetent as reasons for not speaking up,” Anne Marie Palatnik, MSN, writes on Nursing Center. “Nurses have also reported that they do not feel that anything will change as a result of their intervention.”
Only forty-nine percent of nurses felt comfortable questioning the actions or decisions of their superiors, according to the Hospital Survey on Patient Safety Culture conducted by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ).
“This communication breakdown can only be corrected by creating a nonpunitive environment where individuals feel empowered to speak up,” Palatnik says. Registered nurse Jillian Maine sums up on Nurse Center the need for patient advocacy, despite the challenges RNs face.
“Speaking up is our duty,” she says. “There’s no better feeling than advocating for your patient and seeing the sincere look of appreciation on his or her face.”
A leader in nursing education, Duquesne University’s online RN-BSN program allows RNs to complete their coursework in a flexible setting while continuing their work caring for patients. The program is accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE), named by Forbes as one of “America’s Top Colleges” and listed among “Best Value Colleges” and “Best Value Private Colleges.”