What Does a Patient Advocate Do?

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Learn about the role that a patient advocate plays in navigating patients through the healthcare system.

[Featured Image]:  A female patient advocate, wearing a white sweater, is sitting at her desk working on a patient's case.

Patient advocates help patients—and their loved ones — navigate the health care system in many ways, like communicating with doctors, finding legal help, working with insurance companies, and setting up tests and screenings. They assist with many aspects of a patient's medical care to make it a little less complicated. 

The health care system can be confusing and overwhelming, especially when a patient is also dealing with a scary health diagnosis. A patient advocate works as that person's guide, but they're more than that. The Institute for Healthcare Improvement calls patient advocates supporters, believers, sponsors, promoters, campaigners, backers, and spokespeople.

Sometimes, a social worker, chaplain, or even a loved one may fill the role of a patient advocate. Still, in recent years, hospitals and other health care facilities have started to add professional staff members to fill the void. Patient advocates may also work independently or for small businesses specializing in health care advocacy. Learn more about the patient advocate job, including duties and responsibilities, how to become one, required human skills, and some alternative titles you may see in a patient advocate job description. 

Patient advocate roles and titles  

When you look at a patient advocate's job description, you may see that the organization uses a different title. While patient advocate is the most common, the job might be advertised as a patient navigator, as the professional's role is to help the patient navigate the health care system. Other potential titles might include:

  • Health advocate

  • Care manager

  • Case manager

  • Ombudsman 

  • Medical advocate 

  • Patient liaison 

  • Patient representative

  • Consumer advocate 

When you apply for a job as a patient advocate, but the title is different, you can always check with the organization posting the job to ensure it's the same. You can also look at the duties and responsibilities to verify this information.  

Duties and responsibilities of a patient advocate

A patient advocate's duties and responsibilities are plentiful. Still, ultimately, this rewarding career gives you the tools to ensure a patient is taken care of from their diagnosis through their treatment, recovery, and follow-up visits. Patient advocates may work with anyone who requires health care, but they more commonly assist those with chronic illnesses, multiple illnesses, or life-threatening conditions.  

If you're interested in a patient advocate job, some of your regular duties and responsibilities might include:  

  • Setting up medical appointments and finding second opinions 

  • Helping a patient find financial and legal resources

  • Assisting a patient find support groups and other social support

  • Negotiating medical bills

  • Reviewing medical bills to ensure they're accurate

  • Resolving disputes between patients and their insurance companies

  • Resolving conflicts between patients and their health care providers

  • Gathering information on specific conditions and illnesses 

  • Communicating with doctors, nurses, therapists, and other providers on a patient's behalf 

  • Communication with an insurance company on a patient's  behalf 

  • Explaining things to patients, ranging from medical bills to information on a diagnosis 

  • Helping patients navigate their treatment and care options 

  • Keeping notes of what happens during medical visits

  • Ensuring a patient's needs and wishes are met when they can't speak for themselves 

  • Helping patients fill out forms and applications 

  • Identifying areas where more or better care is needed

  • Supporting patients' rights 

  • Reading medical charts, bills, and documents 

No matter what your duties and responsibilities look like, when you work as a patient advocate, one of the most important things you'll do is answer a patient's questions. Whether they want basic information or just need reassurance, it's your job to help make sure they're getting everything they need. Patients often have questions about:   

  • Transportation to and from appointments 

  • Where to go for appointments

  • How to find a different doctor or hospital

  • Their diagnoses (they may not fully understand a condition or treatment options)

  • Options of treatment 

  • How to pay for their medical care  

  • Waiting times 

  • Wanting to go home from extended hospital stays

  • General support when they feel lonely or sad   

Where do patient advocates work? 

Patient advocates can find jobs in numerous locations, from small businesses to hospitals. As the health care system grows more complicated and the American population ages, the need for patient advocates is likely to increase. These are some of the places where you might find patient advocate jobs:  

  • Hospitals: Hospitals typically keep patient advocates on staff. They are available to all patients during a hospital stay and then remain in contact for a time after discharge.

  • Nursing homes: Many nursing homes, senior living homes, and assisted living facilities also have patient advocates.

  • Insurance companies: Like hospitals, many insurance companies also have patient advocates available to you. Even Medicare hires people to fill these roles.

  • Health care advocacy nonprofits: There are some nonprofit organizations set up to provide patient advocates for people in need. While some rely on volunteers, others may hire professional patient advocates to have on staff.

  • Independent patient advocacy businesses: As the need for patient advocates grows, some people are working as independent contractors or setting up small businesses that deal solely with helping patients navigate the health care system. There are even directories online that help patients find private patient advocates.

  • Government agencies: Some governmental agencies hire patient advocates at the federal or state level. These include government-run health care programs, such as Medicare and Medicaid. 

How to become a patient advocate

There is no one specific path to getting a patient advocate job. Each employer may set its own educational requirements, and some may have none but offer training. Others may require an associate degree, bachelor's degree, master's degree, or a certain amount of job experience in areas like nursing or medical billing. You can also explore online training options and potentially improve your chances of being hired with a national certification. 

Educational requirements (degrees, certifications, training) 

The education you'll need to become a patient advocate is usually up to the organization hiring you. Some might be fine with a high school diploma, while others want you to have at least a bachelor's degree. If you're just starting in college and your goal is to get a patient advocate job in the future, you may want to choose a health care field for your major. Other good options include social work, law, finance, or counseling. Some people even earn nursing degrees. 

Read more: A Guide to Online Degrees

Becoming a patient advocate is often a second career for some people, especially those who have worked in health care or related fields, like nursing, medical assisting, medical billing, social work, law, and customer service. You may even find that organizations prefer job candidates with a background in one of these fields.  

While no one degree is required to become a patient advocate, some colleges and universities may offer programs or certifications to help prepare you for a career in the field. If you choose this path, you might take courses on finance, ethics, health care law, communication, the health care system, and other related topics.  

Another option is to earn the Board Certified Patient Advocate (BCPA) credential from the  Patient Advocate Certification Board (PACB). The certification exam is open to people with various backgrounds related to patient advocacy, ranging from those who volunteer in hospitals to physicians. Eligibility is judged on a case-by-case basis. To take the exam, you must first submit an application and show proof of identification. According to the PACB, the certification can help open you up to more job opportunities.  

Required skills 

To become a patient advocate, you must also possess certain human skills, particularly the ability to listen and communicate clearly. Listening to your patients and their loved ones is important, but you must also be able to pick up on body language and other nonverbal clues. They may not know how to communicate their needs with you or be uncomfortable expressing discomfort or dissatisfaction. Written and verbal communication skills are two of the most important qualifiers for the job. A big part of the patient advocate's job involves explaining everything from medical terms to billing and insurance to patients in ways that are easy to understand. 

Other human skills you'll need include: 

  • Problem-solving skills: As a patient advocate, you'll often be involved in making decisions about everything from insurance coverage to treatment options. This means you'll need the ability to solve problems after careful thought, research, and analysis.

  • Interpersonal skills: On any given day, a patient advocate will interact with patients and their loved ones, doctors, nurses, other health care staff, receptionists, office managers, insurance companies, lawyers, and other professionals. This might include resolving conflict or collaborating. For this reason, you'll need to be assertive and command respect, but also positive and polite.

  • Empathy and compassion: Being a patient advocate is entirely about helping someone else get through a difficult situation, so you must be able to put yourself in their shoes. You must also have compassion for those who trust you to help them navigate their health care.

  • Organizational skills: Staying organized is also essential. You'll likely work with multiple patients simultaneously, so you'll need to keep each one's information separate. You'll also need to keep up with appointments, medical bills, due dates, and more. 

Other qualifications 

Any other qualifications you might need will vary depending on where you work. However, as the population grows more diverse, being bilingual, especially speaking Spanish, can make you more appealing to employers. Of course, the more you know about the health care system, especially finance and billing, the better. Employers may also be looking for someone who understands medical terminology well. It's also essential to understand health care laws and insurance coverage and how to use a computer. 

Job outlook and salary information 

According to Glassdoor, a patient advocate makes, on average, a salary of about $36,414 a year. [1] The need for patient advocates should rise as the population ages. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts all health care careers will grow at a rate of 16 percent between 2020 and 2030 [2] due to increased demand for health care services by the Baby Boomer generation. With so many people requiring even more health care, the need for patient advocates should also grow.  

Next Steps 

Make yourself more marketable as a patient advocate by adding new skills to your resume. Visit Coursera to take courses like Medical Terminology from Rice University, or US Health Law Fundamentals from the University of Pennsylvania.

Placeholder

specialization

Medical Terminology

Develop your skills in medical terminology. Identify word parts (prefixes, suffixes, and roots) and abbreviations commonly used in the medical field, read and understand health records, and identify terms associated with all 10 major organ systems.

4.9

(61 ratings)

1,920 already enrolled

BEGINNER level

Average time: 3 month(s)

Learn at your own pace

Skills you'll build:

Communication, Medical language, Health records, human anatomy

Placeholder

course

U.S. Health Law Fundamentals

This course explores how statutes, regulations, common law, and market forces help or hinder three major goals of policy makers: increasing access, reducing ...

4.9

(164 ratings)

4,953 already enrolled

BEGINNER level

Average time: 1 month(s)

Learn at your own pace

Skills you'll build:

Healthcare Management, Health Policy Analysis, Health Insurance, Affordable Care Act

Related articles

Article sources  

1. Glassdoor. "Patient Advocate Salaries, https://www.glassdoor.com/Salaries/patient-advocate-salary-SRCH_KO0,16.htm." Accessed April 2, 2022. 

2. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Healthcare Occupations, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/home.htm#:~:text=Employment." Accessed April 2, 2022.

Written by Coursera • Updated on

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

Learn without limits