Partnering with patient advocates can help church members in need

By Teri Dreher

For many people, their church is like family. It’s a place they can turn to for help and support when they need it.

But even the most benevolent church family might come up short when it comes to helping a member navigate today’s complicated healthcare system.

That’s where a patient advocate can help.

Patient advocates can take on a host of roles for individuals and families. They can:

  • Answer questions about the patient’s medical condition, helping them to make more informed choices.
  • Ask physicians questions a patient or family member wouldn’t think to ask.
  • Research a patient’s full range of treatment options, with an eye toward what is best for them, not what will line an unscrupulous doctor’s pockets.
  • Act as a liaison between patients and providers.
  • Help resolve medical billing problems.
  • Monitor a patient while they are hospitalized.

Because of both their medical knowledge and familiarity with local service providers, patient advocates can quickly step in to help someone who is struggling.

CrossLife Evangelical Free Church in Libertyville, Ill., has used money from its benevolence fund to help people in its church family who needed patient advocacy but couldn’t afford it. In one such instance, church leaders were able to dip into the fund to hire a patient advocate to help a woman in her 70’s find a care center better suited for her mobility issues and medical needs.

For CrossLife, patient advocates are valuable partners in serving the needs of its membership and community.

“We like working with patient advocates because of their comprehensive knowledge of treatment and facility options, their genuine concern for those they serve and their tenacity to find the right solution for whatever needs their clients have,” Steve Mathewson, senior pastor at the church, said.

Physicians like working with patient advocates, as well. Rather than a hinderance, patient advocates can save them time. A doctor can communicate to a patient advocate in five minutes what it might take them 20 to explain to a patient or his or her family. A patient advocate can then translate what the physician has told them to the family in a way they will understand and make sure they have all of their questions answered.

When hiring a patient advocate, churches should remember that not all advocates are created equal. Some might not have much 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 Registered Nurses with expansive 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 United States 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 of Board Certified Patient Advocate (BCPA).

Besides helping patients secure services or oversee care in a hospital, a patient advocate can help with follow-up care. This can be especially crucial for seniors who have no family living close by. These people are referred to as “senior orphans.” Once a crisis is over and everyone has gone home, a patient advocate can step in to monitor compliance and watch for side effects for new medications. They can also watch for early signs of trouble and step in before the problem escalates. This can reduce return visits to the hospital and help keep down healthcare costs.

In a perfect world, no one would need a patient advocate; a trusted friend or fellow church member would be enough. But in today’s complex, fast-paced society, people sometimes need a professional to step in when their problems are too complex to manage on their own. And when churches partner with patient advocates, they can make sure their entire community — even those with limited means — has the help they need when that time comes.


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 and founder of NShore Patient Advocates. She was awarded 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. 

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