When Kathleen Henry's uncle was told he had bladder cancer in May, she knew she needed help. Even though Ms. Henry has a nursing degree, she worried about deciphering treatment options and picking the best hospital for her uncle's care.
Ms. Long accompanied her uncle, Thomas Murray, who is 69 and has no children, on office visits and explained the various treatments his doctors recommended.
"I would have been stumped without her," Mr. Murray said. "They ought to call her a guardian angel."
These days, even a person well versed in medical lingo can become overwhelmed by the complexity of the health care system. That is why many patients and their families who can afford it are turning to patient advocates for help. These professionals, who often have nursing or health care experience, can help a patient research treatment plans, sort out insurance claims and even accompany a patient on doctor's visits. They can frequently open doors to specialists that a patient may not have access to.
Patient advocates have been around for decades, but in the last few years the profession has gained more momentum and acceptance, said Laura Weil, director of the 30-year-old Health Advocacy Program at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y. "Now everyone seems to agree that you need help navigating a fragmented and technical health care system that is not always friendly," Ms. Weil said.
Indeed, some lawmakers working on health care legislation in Washington have argued that improving the coordination of care would be a way to improve medical care and reduce unnecessary, costly treatments and procedures.
Although there are no firm statistics on the number of patient advocates in this country, or the number of people who are using their services, U.S. News & World Report and CareerBuilder.com recently put patient advocates on their list of hot growth careers.
Many employers, large and small, are also adding patient advocacy to their benefit offerings.