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Private patient advocates a growing, yet costly, trend in health care

By Kate Thayer

Chicago Tribune

Barbara Salata was anxious, couldn’t sleep and told her family it felt like she was having a heart attack. The 77-year-old Libertyville woman would forget things and generally “wasn’t the mom that we knew,” said her son, Bob Salata Jr.

Despite a sleep apnea diagnosis and a sleeping pill prescription, Barbara Salata wasn’t getting better.

“It became obvious … we need to get a new team to look at this differently,” her son said. “I needed someone to listen to her. We were desperate to find someone who could find some direction for my mother’s health care.”

So the family hired a private patient advocate, a growing field of health care professionals. The advocate, Teri Dreher, suggested changing Barbara Salata’s medications, which the family said alleviated the most troubling symptoms. Dreher worked six months to find a new team of doctors for Salata, who said she now feels more like herself.

Her family credits the changes to Dreher’s fresh perspective and her time managing Salata’s care.

“It was a service I wasn’t even aware was available,” Barbara Salata said.

That’s because private patient advocacy remains relatively uncommon, said Trisha Torrey, founder of the Alliance of Professional Health Advocates.

Private patient advocates are not affiliated with hospitals or doctors. Instead they work as private consultants for patients and help manage health needs. Services vary from attending doctor visits, researching medical treatments and helping with medical equipment purchases to handling insurance claims, disputing hospital bills and scheduling appointments.

Advocates say they fill a gap in the health care system by making sure patients – or, as they call them, clients – are educated. They say their involvement relieves stress, especially for those dealing with serious or chronic illness, and that their vigilance and expertise can avert medical errors.

Others point out that many hospitals already offer patient advocates and that the benefits of a private advocate go only to those who can afford to pay. Depending on the advocate and the services, clients can expect to pay a private advocate $75 to $300 an hour, Torrey said.

Despite college certification programs, the budding industry also has yet to establish an accreditation process.

The idea of a patient advocate is not new, said Ronald Wyatt, medical director in the Division of Health Improvement at The Joint Commission, a suburban Chicago nonprofit that certifies hospitals and other health care organizations across the country. Typically, though, an advocate is simply a family member or friend who acts as another set of eyes to catch errors and speak on behalf of the patient, Wyatt said. It’s a relationship that benefits the sick person and the hospital, he said. “You save lives.”

Professional advocates say not everyone has a friend or relative to lean on, and it can be hard for someone who’s sick to manage care for themselves.

While many hospitals have patient advocate-type positions, Torrey said they ultimately work for the hospital, not the patient. “An advocate has to have allegiance to whoever is writing the paycheck,” she said.

Torrey estimates there are about 250 private patient advocates across the country. One private advocate can be found in Western New York at the website Roswell Park Cancer Institute also offers patient advocates.