The booming new profession of patient advocate

A doctor examines a patient. As the health care system gets more complex, more people are turning to patient advocates for help.

When William Roach was diagnosed with brain cancer last year, he knew he needed to make important decisions -- and he wanted someone who could help him make them. "It's not hard to find people who are sympathetic," says Roach. "It is hard to find people that are both sympathetic and can provide information that can actually be helpful."  

Roach learned about patient advocates at his doctor's office and decided to contact Elisabeth Schuler Russell of Patient Navigator, a health care consultant. 

"Almost immediately [Russell] had some very good thoughts on what I should be looking into, what I should be trying to avoid," says Roach. She even had some dietary and nutrition tips for him.

Russell, who serves as president of the National Association of Healthcare Advocacy Consultants, says there are roughly 200 patient advocates working in the U.S. right now. She says the profession is in its infancy, and many times doctors don't even know what she does.  

"They’re a little skeptical at first," says Russell. "Because you’re not a family member, so why are you here? But once we explain to them that we’re there to help manage all the moving parts and to benefit the patient, they’re usually fine with that."  

Russell charges $125 an hour, which she says is about average. She says most of her clients only need a few hours of her time -- "We help patients find the right doctors and get great research so they can become their own best advocate."

As the health care system becomes more complex, more people may need this kind of help, says James Unland, president of The Health Capital Group.  "The demand is increasing and I think it’s going to[do] nothing but grow," he says. As Baby Boomers age, Unland believes that they will likely turn to patient advocate services for help choosing doctors, treatments, medications and even dealing with billing (a whole other arm of the profession).

But Les Funtleyder, author of "Health Care Investing," warns that patients should beware. He says there is no licensing or accreditation for patient advocates and no actual qualifications are required.  "You see this at the beginning of almost any new industry," says Funtleyder. "There are always good ones and bad ones, and hopefully the bad ones get weeded out."

William Roach believes he got a good one -- and that the $2,500 he spent on a patient advocate actually saved him money because it meant fewer hours with his specialist. Luckily, Roach says he hasn't used his patient advocate in awhile. "My MRIs have been clear, clear, clear," says Roach. "And they took me off the chemotherapy I was on and, like most chemotherapies, that’s something you’d like to see in the rearview mirror. "

About the author

Stacey Vanek Smith is a senior reporter for Marketplace, where she covers banking, consumer finance, housing and advertising.

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