PATIENT ADVOCATES PUT COMPASSION INTO ACTION

by Julie Grimstad

A patient may need someone he trusts by the bedside in order to feel secure enough to go to sleep.

Visiting the sick is a work of mercy. Mercy is similar to compassion, which means “to suffer with” another, but it is more challenging than mere compassion. Mercy is putting our kindly inclinations—which we are often tempted to resist—into practice through readiness to assist. A relative or volunteer advocate who accompanies a medically vulnerable person to doctor appointments or stays with the person when hospitalized or in a nursing home contributes immeasurably to the person’s well-being.

The term “patient advocate,” as used here, means a person who strives to safeguard the welfare of a patient in the health care system. Particularly in need of advocates are persons whose lives are devalued in our society—those who are mentally or physically disabled, chronically ill, elderly, incurable, or poor.

During a visit with a doctor (in office or health care facility) the advocate’s essential role is to facilitate communication between patient and doctor. The advocate compiles a list of the patient’s symptoms and questions to be covered with the doctor and makes certain that all these are satisfactorily addressed. The advocate also takes notes, so the doctor’s advice can be reviewed later with the patient. This will prevent misunderstandings and, hopefully, ensure compliance with the doctor’s orders.

Some hospitalized patients become disoriented in unfamiliar surroundings. They may feel acutely cut off from others and betrayed by their own bodies. A familiar face helps orient the patient and prevents loneliness, isolation and despair. A patient may need someone he trusts by the bedside in order to feel secure enough to go to sleep. Rest is essential to recovery, but often difficult to get in a hospital. Particularly vulnerable patients need someone with them 24/7. The patient advocate can recruit and schedule family members, friends and volunteers to help.

Many facilities are short-staffed. This may result in overuse of tranquilizers or restraints for patients who are restless or demanding, feeding tubes for patients who can swallow but require assistance with meals, and call bells ignored when help is urgently needed. The advocate can soothe the restless patient, prevent him from pulling out tubes or falling out of bed, assist with meals, offer drinks of water, go for help in an emergency, etc.

Some hospital/nursing home personnel perceive certain patients as being of “low value” and therefore give them less care or even think they would be “better off dead.” The advocate’s competent, caring presence is apt to induce staff members to be more attentive to the patient’s needs.

Possibly the most important role the patient advocate plays is visible ally of the patient – a sign to the world that this patient is valued and that protecting this patient is a commendable act.

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