Advocacy in Nursing: 5 Ways to Support Your Patients
By Ashley Brooks on 08/16/2018
After putting in years of hard work, you’ve finally earned the right to put the letters “RN” behind your name. The prospect of getting to spend your days caring for others was the motivation that kept you going through every late night of studying and every difficult class. You’re ecstatic to be living your dream and making a difference in others’ lives.
Nursing has always been about more than punching a clock and putting in your hours. You spend every single shift focused on your patients’ needs, and you’ve noticed that many of them seem scared, intimidated or uncomfortable about being in a medical setting. How can you give your patients a voice and reassure their fears about their healthcare? One way to help patients beyond the physical care you provide is to be a strong patient advocate.
Patient advocacy in nursing is a big part of your job, but it’s not always something you know how to do as soon as you pass the NCLEX. We talked to veteran nurses to bring you expert tips for being the advocate your patients need in their most vulnerable moments.
What is patient advocacy?
Picture this: you’ve experienced a serious and unexpected medical problem. Several different doctors you’ve never met before have rushed through your room and given you confusing information using language you don’t understand. You never seem to see the same person twice, and no one stops to listen to your concerns. You feel scared, powerless and unsure of who you can turn to.
This situation is an unfortunate reality for many patients in a medical setting. That’s why one of the most important jobs a nurse has is to advocate for their patients. “Advocacy is being a voice for patients who don't know whom to talk to or how to fight for themselves or a loved one,” says Pat Carroll, former trauma and transport nurse and the owner of Educational Medical Consultants.
An advocate takes action to inform and support their patients, according to RN Central. Nurse advocates protect their patients’ rights and help patients and their families assert those rights to other medical staff. A nurse with strong advocacy skills can be the positive influence that allows patients to feel empowered and in control of their health.
5 Ways for nurses to be a patient advocate
Learn from these five strategies you can put into practice to be a supportive advocate for your patients.
1. Get to know your patients
“The more you talk with your patient and really get to know them, their values and their moral and spiritual needs, the better advocate you will be,” Carroll says. You can’t advocate for someone if you don’t know what they need. Getting to know your patients is the first step toward advocacy.
The best way to understand what your patients need is to simply spend time talking with them. What values can you help them uphold? What medical procedures do they not understand? What fears can you help reassure them about? Getting to know your patients through conversation may seem simple, but it’s a vitally important action for any advocate.
2. Educate your patients
“As a nurse, part of your job is to educate your patient,” says Jill Beavers-Kirby, a nurse practitioner who’s worked in healthcare for 33 years. A large part of advocacy is supporting your patients in making informed medical decisions for themselves or a loved one. Without proper education, a patient may not have all the information they need to make a fully thought-out decision that reflects their values.
“Did they feel like they were given options for their treatment, or were they simply told that they were going to receive a certain medication or that they needed to have a certain test?” Beavers-Kirby recommends thinking about questions like these to determine what topics your patients might need to learn more about. Patient education is also an opportunity to address misconceptions about their medical situation or to mitigate fears.
3. Tell your patients about their rights
One of the biggest aspects of advocacy is upholding your patients’ human and legal rights—rights patients may not even be aware they have. Beavers-Kirby notes the importance of the Patients’ Bill of Rights, which guarantees patients certain freedoms, such as the right to refuse medical treatment or to consult with the physician of their choosing.
Many patients don’t feel comfortable or qualified asking questions or asserting themselves in a medical setting. Informing your patients about their rights can help them feel more comfortable speaking up and taking control of their healthcare.
4. Translate medical jargon
It’s easy for nurses to forget that the medical jargon they hear every day can sound confusing or scary to patients who are unfamiliar with these terms. “The best way to explain to a new nurse why advocacy is so important is to simply ask them if they have ever been a patient in a hospital or even a patient in a medical office,” Beavers-Kirby says. “Then I ask them if they felt intimidated by what the healthcare provider says because they often speak in medical lingo.”
Make it a habit to explain everything you do for your patient in plain language. Ask if they understand all the information they’ve been given, or if they have any questions about any unfamiliar terms. Giving patients a brief rundown of any medical terms they’re likely to encounter can help them feel more confident communicating with their healthcare provider.
5. Remember your responsibility to your patient
Most importantly, a patient advocate is there to help the patient achieve the outcome they want, not the one you personally might choose. “I have advocated for actions I would not have chosen for myself or a family member. But if I know those are my patient's wishes and needs, they become my mission,” Carroll says.
Keeping your responsibility to your patients first will help you act appropriately and intervene on their behalf when necessary. “If you are focusing on your role as your patient's advocate, you are there to serve their needs at that time of vulnerability,” Carroll says.
Your advocacy matters
Sharing your voice as a patient advocate is one of the most important things you can do as a nurse. Now that you’ve got expert advice to put advocacy in nursing into practice, learn more about quality and safety in nursing with our article, “What Are QSEN Competencies and Why Are They Important for Nurses?”