This last week my patient advocacy skills have been put to the test. Not for me, but as a long-distance advocate support for a friend.
It all started with a simple Facebook message, asking a friend in another part of the country how her surgery went. The response, and messages over the next week, were upsetting. Not only did she have post-surgical complications, but her medical team didn’t take seriously her escalating concerns (all based on symptoms that legitimately needed further investigation).
I won’t go into the details about the complications or the medical team’s response (which included chastising her for going to the ER when she had a high fever and was in serious pain). Rather, what I want to talk about is the role each of us can, and should play in supporting others in advocacy.
Importance of listening
When my friend started telling me about her initial complications (that only got worse), I resisted the urge to jump in and tell her what to do — or complain about our medical system. Instead, I asked her a number of questions about why she was upset, what information she was lacking and what action she was hoping for from her medical team. Even though I’ve had the same procedure as her, I didn’t spend time comparing my experience or trying to diagnose, as I’m not a medical profession (it can be tempting to do this, but resist the urge).
I helped her get clear on the information she needed and formulate her thoughts for when she called her doctor. As her journey continued (involving ER visits and more doctor appointments), I was there as a sounding board. I did not pretend to know the answers, but rather helped her develop the questions she wanted (and needed) to ask. I also helped her be firm on what she was experiencing, how it made her feel and have the confidence to push back.
And a lot of what I did was listen. Listen to her fears and concerns. Listen to how she was feeling unvalued and unsupported as a patient. And listen to what actions she wanted to happen.
Pulling it together
I was able to do all of this objectively and with a clear head because I wasn’t the person living this medical experience (nightmare). Rather I was sitting on my computer, thousands of kilometres away, hearing what she was saying and being able to process the information. I wasn’t sleep deprived, scared, in pain or feeling intimated (and being intimidated) by a medical team.
And this is why it is so important we just don’t advocate for ourselves, but also help others find their voice.
I didn’t attend medical appointments with her or call her doctor. But I did give her a safe sounding board for her concerns, listening without judgement. This is a role she not only appreciated, but needed to help her through a difficult time
Pay it forward
The vision each of us has for patient and family centred care to be more than a tagline on a website and a living, breathing patient experience, requires us to reach out and help others. Help those who are going through rough times, are vulnerable or don’t have the energy or tools to have their patient voice heard.
It’s not just about us and our individual patient experience. Rather it’s about working collectively to help improve the patient experience for all patients.
For me, I was more than happy to help my friend find her voice and advocate for herself. I was able to share the lessons learned through my own journey as a patient and a mom.
I should also caution that before you jump in to help someone else, check in to see how you are doing emotionally and physically. It’s just like the instructions on airplanes to put on your own oxygen mask before helping another person. If it’s not a safe time for you to help, let the other person know. But if you are in a place to offer support, do so. It will not only help the person needing your help, but also help you refine your patient advocacy skills (and hopefully transfer some of these onto the medical team).
So the next time a friend or family member is complaining about a negative patient experience, take a moment to think if you can help in any way. This could be listening, helping them formulate their thoughts or taking them to an appointment. Even picking up the phone or stopping by for a visit and truly listening to them can be of great support.
And guess what? There will be a time when you need someone in your corner. So why not pay it forward and help someone else?
This article also appears as a blog post at learnpatientadvocacy.com