The Role of Nurses in Patient Advocacy
By Jennifer Mitchell, contributor
Patient advocacy is one of your most important responsibilities as a nurse. This is emphasized in the American Nurses Association (ANA) Code of Ethics for Nurses. The code's third provision states that "the nurse promotes, advocates for and protects the rights, health and safety of the patient."
While patient advocacy is essential, not all nurses know what it looks like in practice. "Patient advocacy can be defined as almost everything you do on behalf of the patient when you're on the job," says James Cobb, RN, MSN, and understanding how advocacy plays into your daily nursing duties is an important part of providing quality patient care. Here are some pointers from other healthcare professionals on how to become a better patient advocate.
Nurses serve patients' best interests
"Patients who are ill and unprepared for navigating the health system rely heavily on the expertise and support of nurses," says Dr. Crystal Slaughter, DNP, APRN, a faculty member for Walden University's Bachelor of Science in Nursing.
As a nurse, you're often your patient's first point of contact with the healthcare system. Slaughter says this helps you see your patient as a whole person, not just someone who has a specific disease or illness. With this view of your patient, you can "advocate for the best plan of care for the patient overall."
Nurses help keep their patients safe
Patient advocacy happens "when you take steps to make sure [patients] have a safe hospital visit," Cobb says. As a nurse, keeping patients safe may include asking for clarification when you receive unclear orders from a doctor. Patient advocacy alsohappens at shift changes "when you make sure the next nurse understands the care that's taken place," says Cobb.
Advocating for your patients also means helping them feel safe, says Jessica Pittman, DNP, CRNA, ACNP, and member of the New York State Association of Nurse Anesthetists. "Surgery can be a frightening experience," Pittman says, and nurses have the training to "[make patients] feel safe and comfortable throughout the surgical period."
Nurses support their patients' autonomy
Patients have the right to make decisions about their own medical care. Some may decide they want a second opinion, and others may want their loved ones to be included in the decision-making process. Other patients may not want treatment at all. The American Medical Association Journal of Ethics reports that competent patients are allowed to refuse treatment, even if that treatment would save their lives.
Nurses can advocate for their patients by helping them express their thoughts and concerns. This could mean "presenting the patient's side to doctors and other healthcare professionals," Cobb says. This part of patient advocacy isn't always easy, especially if you don't agree with a patient's choices.
Nurses provide patient education
"Health literacy is a huge issue in the United States," Slaughter says. When patients come to a hospital or other healthcare facility, they "are often not experts in healthcare or diseases." They may not understand their diagnosis, and if they do, they may not understand their prognosis or their treatment options. This makes it harder for patients to make informed decisions about their medical care.
Nurses are well-positioned to educate their patients. They've been rated the most trustworthy profession for 18 years in a row, according to Gallup, a major polling firm. According to the most recent poll, 85% of Americans say nurses have "high" or "very high" honesty and ethical standards. Only 65% said the same of doctors.
Educating patients means "making sure the patient really does understand what it is that you've told them to the best of their ability," Cobb says. Sometimes, you may need to have a "heart-to-heart talk with the patient in a way that gets their attention," he says.
Advocating for patients is an important part of your role as a nurse. Patients rely on you to act in their best interests, support their autonomy, keep them safe and educate them about their conditions. To start advocating for patients, browse our available travel nursing jobs.