Everyone today needs a patient advocate,” the American Medical Association recently said. Indeed, with our increasingly complicated healthcare system, more and more dental patients are finding that what the AMA said is true, and they are increasingly turning to patient advocates to manage their dental and health care or the care of their loved ones.
A good patient advocate can empower individuals or families to make informed choices by educating them about the patient’s medical conditions, asking dentists and physicians questions the patient wouldn’t know to ask and researching a patient’s full range of treatment options. They also act as a liaison between patients and providers, look out for a patient while they are receiving treatment and ensure that insurance claims get paid.
It’s important to remember, though, that not all patient advocates are created equal. Some may not have any hands-on healthcare experience beyond their advocacy training. To find someone with more expertise, it’s best to look for an RN patient advocate. These advocates are often veteran Registered Nurses with experience in patient care. National certification and graduate training in the field can also signal someone who is more knowledgeable about advocating for patients. About 20 U.S. universities offer graduate certificate programs in private-patient advocacy. National certification became available this year via the Patient Advocate Certification Board, which conducts a rigorous exam spanning a broad spectrum of patient advocacy areas. Those who pass earn the credentials “BCPA” — Board Certified Patient Advocate.
Rather than a hindrance to dentists, patient advocates are often seen as a time-saver. A dentist can communicate information to a patient advocate in five minutes — information that might take him or her 20 minutes to communicate to a patient. That’s a plus for both sides. It saves time for the dentist and leaves the patient more time to understand what is going on and get a clear understanding of their options from an unbiased source.
A patient advocate will give a patient the whole picture, not just the one that is the most financially beneficial to an insurance company or will put the most money in a dentist’s pocket. A patient advocate can also provide follow-up to help with a patient’s care. Anyone who has ever listened to a dentist’s instructions in their office only to forget the details of those instructions when they get home or who is trying to manage a family member’s care from out-of-state understands the importance of this. The patient advocate can provide instruction when necessary, monitor compliance and watch for side effects of medications. And when they are monitoring patients in their homes, they can often catch the early signs of trouble and get them medical help before the health issue escalates to a health crisis.
Ever wonder whether a toothache or pain you’re having is a normal side effect of a procedure but decided to take a “wait and see” approach because you “didn’t want to bother” a busy dentist, only to have the problem get worse and be scolded for not calling sooner? A good patient advocate would know what’s normal and what’s not and make that call to your dentist when necessary.
One of the many challenges facing dentists today is how to help patients who can’t manage their own dental care. Some are “senior orphans” — elderly and alone. Others are reeling from a dental crisis or diagnosis that’s beyond what they can handle. Many have families who are too far away or too busy to handle complex dental caregiving needs. Sometimes, if a practice incorporates regular travel to nursing or senior residences to see patients who often are unable to advocate for themselves, the dentist may feel helpless and frustrated.
Either way, there is a straightforward solution: Connect them to a local RN patient advocate. These experienced nurse advocates are trained to guide patients through the dental healthcare maze, coordinating with their dentists and doctors to ensure they receive proper care.
Patient advocates collaborate with dental patients, families and the dentist. Best of all, they are paid solely by the patient/family — there is no cost to the practice.
When a patient/client retains an advocate to help manage their dental healthcare, they can:
• Follow up and reinforce to make sure they follow through on doctor’s orders
• Accompany them on dental visits and during procedures
• Serve as liaison between patients and dentists, answering questions, explaining terms and generally improving communication and patient satisfaction, while saving the dentist’s time, money and frustration
• Identify other qualified care providers and coordinate care if the need arises
• Handle insurance and/or Medicare/ Medicaid issues
So can a patient act as their own advocate? Absolutely! But trained patient advocates bring to the table medical expertise that can help them spot problems early and communicate these concerns to medical personnel in a way that they will clearly understand. They also can handle the time-consuming but necessary tasks of making sense of insurance statements and ensuring that their client’s needs are being met while they’re at their most fragile.
Think of a patient advocate as a dental healthcare partner — someone who focuses on navigating treatment so their clients can solely focus on getting better.
About the author: Teri Dreher, RN, iRNPA, is an award-winning RN patient advocate and a pioneer in the growing field of private patient advocacy. A critical care nurse for more than 30 years, today she is owner/founder of NShore Patient Advocates, the largest advocacy company in the Chicago area. She was awarded her industry’s highest honor, The APHA H. Kenneth Schueler Patient Advocacy Compass Award and was recently among the first to be awarded professional certification by the Patient Advocate Certification Board. Her book, “Patient Advocacy Matters,” is now in its second printing.