Visiting the sick is a work of mercy. Patient advocates manifest mercy by showing compassion to sick and suffering people. Compassion means “to suffer with” another, to put our kindly inclinations—which we are often tempted to resist—into action through readiness to assist. A person who accompanies a medically vulnerable person to doctor appointments or stays with the person when hospitalized or in a nursing home contributes immeasurably to the person’s well-being. 

The term “patient advocate,” as used here, means a person who strives to safeguard the welfare of a patient in the health care system. Particularly in need of advocates are persons whose lives are devalued in our society—those who are mentally or physically disabled, chronically ill, elderly, incurable, or poor. 

During a visit with a doctor (in office or other health care facility) the advocate’s essential role is to facilitate communication between patient and doctor. The advocate compiles a list of the patient’s symptoms and questions to be covered with the doctor and makes certain that all these are satisfactorily addressed with the patient during the appointment. The advocate also takes notes so the doctor’s advice can be reviewed later with the patient. This will prevent misunderstandings and, hopefully, ensure compliance with the doctor’s recommendations and orders.

Patient advocates are especially necessary when a vulnerable patient is hospitalized. Some hospitalized patients become disoriented in unfamiliar surroundings. They may feel acutely cut off from others and betrayed by their own bodies. A familiar face helps orient the patient and prevents loneliness, isolation, and despair. A patient may need someone he trusts by the bedside to feel secure enough to go to sleep. Rest is essential to recovery, but often difficult to get in a hospital. Particularly vulnerable patients need someone with them 24/7. The patient advocate can recruit and schedule family members, friends, and volunteers to help. 

Many facilities are short-staffed. This may result in overuse of tranquilizers or restraints for patients who are restless or demanding, feeding tubes for patients who can swallow but require assistance with meals, and call bells ignored when help is urgently needed. The advocate can soothe the restless patient, prevent him from pulling out tubes or falling out of bed, assist with meals, offer drinks of water, go for help in an emergency, etc.

Some hospital and nursing home personnel perceive certain patients as being of “low value” which leads to neglect and abuse. The advocate’s competent, caring presence relieves a patient’s fears and is apt to induce staff members to be kinder and more attentive to the patient’s needs. 

Possibly the most important role the patient advocate plays is visible ally of the patient – a sign to the world that this patient is valued and that caring for and protecting this patient is a commendable act. Like the Good Samaritan, life-affirming patient advocates do not consider a patient’s identity, competence, how long the person is likely to survive, the cost of care, or our personal inconvenience. We are called to embrace life in its fullest at every stage.

Julie Grimstad is President of HALO (the Healthcare Advocacy and Leadership Organization)

Learn more about patient advocacy: contact the HALO Helpline by calling 888-221-4256(HALO) or email

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