Patient Advocates: A New Market Niche

As the health-care landscape continues to be reconfigured through legislative reform, greater consumer awareness, technological advances and evolving provider business models, an entrepreneurial niche has been carved out to help patients find the best, most efficient care. It’s called patient advocacy, and although the business is in its infancy, already there are a couple hundred members of the National Association of Healthcare Advocacy Consultants (NAHAC), as reported on Marketplace.

The organization’s self-described purpose is “to improve the way people interact with and experience the health care system by supporting public education to foster effective self-advocacy.”

We have repeatedly described the role of a patient advocate and explained why every patient who is hospitalized and all patients unable to fully inform themselves and act in their own interests should have a patient advocate.

The Marketplace story describes this function as a profession. It told the story of William Roach, who was diagnosed with brain cancer and faced multiple important decisions. He needed help. "It's not hard to find people who are sympathetic," Roach told Marketplace. "It is hard to find people that are both sympathetic and can provide information that can actually be helpful."

It’s sort of like asking your sister-in-law, who is good at math, to help with your financial portfolio. When you win the lottery, however, you need professional advice about what to do with all that money.

Roach contacted Elisabeth Schuler Russell, president of NAHAC and a private health-care consultant. Her line of work is so new, she said, sometimes doctors don’t understand her role. "They’re a little skeptical at first," she told Marketplace. "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."

Her fees are $125 an hour. That’s a lot, but, according to her, most people need only a few hours of her time to help patients locate the right providers and supply them with relevant research so that they can “become their own best advocate."

Obviously, for some people this service isn’t affordable. And it shouldn’t be necessary if high-quality, cost-effective medical care routinely were delivered efficiently. We all know that doesn’t always happen.

Health-care consultant James Unland believes Baby Boomers will juice the patient advocate market for help choosing doctors, treatments, medications and dealing with billing, which is a whole other branch of the business.

But Les Funtleyder, author of "Health Care Investing: Profiting from the New World of Pharma, Biotech, and Health Care Services,” raises a warning flag. Because patient advocates so far aren’t licensed, accredited or otherwise certified, anyone can call himself a patient advocate even if he lacks qualifications. "You see this at the beginning of almost any new industry," Funtleyder told Marketplace. "There are always good ones and bad ones, and hopefully the bad ones get weeded out."

Roach apparently got the flower and not the weed. He said the $2,500 he spent on a patient advocate saved him money because it helped him spend fewer hours under a specialist’s care. And he’s fortunate that his screening tests lately have all been clear and he hasn’t required follow up.


DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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