I’ve participated in several lively discussions about patient advocacy in the past weeks – at the Boston Healthca.mp #hcbos, on the Society for Participatory Medicine (#S4PM) list and with Kelley Connor of Real Women on Health fame. Advocacy has two overlapping worlds – individual advocacy and policy advocacy. I will muse here about individual advocacy in acute care. An advocate is a guide, champion, companion – health partner. So challenging for the acutely ill person to be effective as their own advocate. One of my sons went to Africa as a development aide worker. When I invited to engage on health with his team as they prepared for their adventure, I suggested that they identify a health partner among their team. Several months into their experience, we hadn’t heard from him in some time. Then we received a letter, Hi, I’m your son’s health partner. He contracted malaria… OMG. Health partners are those who know the patient and can focus on logistics, relationships, communication/information, and patient comfort. Vigilance about the mundane important things comes first: a good team, hand washing, pain management, and mobility. Next its access to information and setting goals or milestones. What has to happen before the patient can be discharged? Pain management, activity level, self care in the hospital, a safe place to go upon discharge. If the acute care is elective, its scouting out the official communication routes: who’s the charge nurse, where’s the patient relations office, will you be communicating with a hospitalist, an attending, a resident, or a student? Who’s in charge of the overall care for this episode? Charles Inlander’s book, Take This Book to the Hospital with You gave voice to my early nursing career observations that the health journey was a risky place. I had realized that my role as a nurse to be a patient advocate was valuable and necessary, but insufficient. Acting as an advocate for a son when he had cancer, I didn’t know as much as I thought about what he wanted and how I could be of help and not get in his way. We had many discussions together and as an immediate family about death and dying, about treatment options, about communication with extended family. So challenging to integrate my perspectives, emotions, fears and put his first. Thankfully, it wasn’t just me in that role. We had an advocacy team – my wife, other sons and their partners, his girlfriend and her parents. We did pretty well. As a nurse I’ve been challenged by advocates. It’s been rare that the advocate was clearly identified. More often the tension between family members muddied the water. For end of life issues, advanced directives and durable power of attorney helps clarify, but most acute care episodes are not end of life.
I’ve embraced and learned about health partners as a patient, caregiver, nurse, and leader. I’ve had cyclical conversations with any family I might serve as a health partner, especially my mother and my wife. With my mother it took 15 years to arrive at comfort with the discussion. My sister-in-law, a nurse, was the best I’ve ever seen identifying and supporting health partners with her patients. She brazenly and tenderly included it as part of her routine first assessment of every patient she cared for and then included them in the routine care.