Written by Brian Engard
Registered nurses are the most frequent point of contact with patients in healthcare. They “provide and coordinate patient care, educate patients and the public about various health conditions, and provide advice and emotional support to patients and their family members,” according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. They typically work as part of a team with doctors and other healthcare workers, and they provide the bulk of direct patient care.
As hands-on caregivers, nurses have the primary responsibility of ensuring quality, ethical care for their patients. To this end, patient advocacy is an integral part of practicing nursing; in fact, one provision of the American Nurses Association Code of Ethics says that “the nurse promotes, advocates for, and protects the rights, health, and safety of the patient.”
Nurses oversee the healthcare of many patients and can be privy to concerning practices. Hospitals are required to look after their own financial well-being, legal obligations and other factors that can sometimes cause patient care to deteriorate, and sometimes healthcare workers make mistakes. When this happens, someone who practices patient advocate nursing steps in and looks out for the patients’ well-being.
Patient Advocate Nursing in Practice
American Nurse Today (ANT) defines advocacy as “using one’s position to support, protect, or speak out for the rights and interests of another.” This practice is vital in healthcare, because errors and oversights can result in severe injury or illness, or even loss of life. According to a Johns Hopkins study, medical errors are the No. 3 cause of death in the United States, at roughly 250,000 deaths per year. A nurse patient advocate must not only catch these errors, but also argue for their correction in the future in order to promote safety and patient health.
Of all the healthcare professionals who have contact with patients, nurses are the most ideally suited for patient advocacy. Their constant contact with patients allows them many opportunities to catch errors, such as mislabeled I.V. bags or incorrect patient charts, and their familiarity with their patients can give them the ability to notice small changes in patient condition that another healthcare provider might miss.
Patient advocacy is not without its challenges, however. Being a nurse advocate for one’s patients often means correcting the mistakes of other healthcare workers and can lead to confrontations. In extreme cases, such as the below example from ANT, retaliation can even occur:
“One of the most egregious examples of retaliation for patient advocacy activities occurred recently in Winkler County, Texas, when two nurses, Vickilyn Galle and Anne Mitchell, were criminally indicted by the county attorney for reporting a physician to the Texas Medical Board because of patient-safety concerns. One week before trial, charges against Galle were dropped. A jury found Mitchell not guilty. Subsequently, the Texas Medical Board took action against the physician for witness intimidation as well as practice violations. Further, the Texas Attorney General’s office indicted the hospital administrator, Winkler County sheriff, county prosecutor, and physician for retaliation and other charges.”
The American Journal of Critical Care suggests that the best way to avoid such conflicts while practicing patient advocacy is to embrace a spirit of collaboration with other healthcare professionals, rather than taking the attitude that it is the nurse’s job to protect patients from the mistakes of others. When advocating for a patient, it’s natural to have an impulse to cast blame or render judgment of someone putting that patient at risk. While that may or may not be justified, often it’s more effective for the patient and the organization to approach patient advocacy by presenting solutions and trying to understand why problems exist in the first place, in order to better prevent them from occurring in the future.
Going from RN to BSN
Developing the right knowledge and communication skills to be an effective nurse patient advocate takes training. With an online RN to BSN degree from Campbellsville University, you can learn those skills in order to better advocate for your patients. Study in a flexible, dynamic environment with a schedule that works for your life.