A hospital stay for you or your loved one can be stressful. You may have unanswered questions or be unsure if you're getting the very best care. But you don't have to sit back and wonder in silence.

The Need for Health Care Advocacy

The health care field has changed significantly over the past decade, according to Clyde Yancy, MD, chief of Cardiology, Northwestern Medicine, Chicago, IL, and former president of the American Heart Association. Currently, Yancy serves as a member of the newly-formed and federally-funded Patient Centered Outcomes Research Institute. He now has a special interest in patient-centric benefits in health care and patient advocacy and in ensuring that the lines of communication are open between patients and medical professionals.

In the past, Yancy says that doctors used to make most of the healthcare decisions and patients have come to expect those decisions, but in today's new world of health care, the patient is empowered to be able to research her own condition and treatment options, understand the finances involved, and demand the best quality care.

When Medical Advocacy Starts

With these new and improved realities in place, Yancy says your role as your own health care advocate really starts before you even get to the hospital. This means being proactive when you meet with your primary care physician or specialist to ensure you understand your health concerns and your options for how to address them.

"Patients are encouraged to ask for justification if a test is ordered, to ask for a second opinion if the recommendations are unclear, and to ask for patient-friendly education to learn more," he explains. By equipping patients with the information they need right from the start, often, questions and confusion during the hospital stay can be avoided entirely.

Steps to Be Your Own Health Care Advocate

Nonetheless, there are always emergency hospitalizations and times when a patient does have questions or feels uncomfortable about his care. Here is Yancy's advice on how to be your own health care advocate to navigate some common situations that could occur in the hospital:

  • If several family members are involved, it's a good idea to appoint one to be the spokesperson so there isn't too much confusion with transferring information between the family and hospital staff.
  • When you have questions, you'll want to seek out the person who is giving the care (such as the doctor or nurse) and talk to him or her. Non-confrontational medical advocacy language is most effective and includes things like: "I have a concern or question that hasn't been answered." "This is different than what I was led to believe." "Would you mind explaining this to me in more detail because I don't fully understand."
  • If you don't get satisfaction, the next step would be to ask to speak to the attending physician, chief nursing officer, or chief medical officer. (Or the head person in the hospital's particular staffing model).
  • Present a written list of questions to get the medical team to focus on your concerns, and frame a dialogue so all of your questions are addressed effectively.

When This Isn't Enough

Yancy says that in the majority of cases when medical advocacy is needed, patients and family members will have their issues resolved effectively through those simple steps. But occasionally, things do go wrong. When you feel that an error has been made, Yancy says you may need to speak with a patient advocate at the hospital (most have someone in this role) or call the case manager at your insurance company and ask her to help you.

When you need a fast response from the medical team, Yancy suggests that you express the seriousness of the situation, using words such as "harm," "error," and "mistake." These words will initiate a response in the hospital that will bring together a team to look into the problem more fully and if needed, to elevate it to hospital leadership to look at it more closely.

Take Charge of Your Health

Of course the best case scenario is always to avoid becoming ill and needing a hospital stay in the first place, Yancy says.

"The best thing you can do is to maintain and preserve your health as best you can," he  stresses. This means making healthy lifestyle choices, such as eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly, and getting annual checkups.

Clyde Yancy, MD, reviewed this article.




Yancy, Clyde MD. Chief of Cardiology, Northwestern Medicine and chief of the division of cardiology at the Feinberg School of Medicine. Phone interview 20 Dec. 2012.

Healthcare.gov. "Patient's Bill of Rights." US Dept. of Health and Human Services. 1 July 2010. Web. 20 Dec. 2012.

MedlinePlus. "Patients Rights." US National Library of Medicine. N.d. Web. 20 Dec. 2012.