It’s Like Having a Nurse in the Family

Updated on October 12, 2015

By Teri Dreher, RN & Patient Advocate, Leads Growing Healthcare Trend   

Obtaining quality healthcare is challenging, from choosing the right providers and treatment plans to sometimes persuading your insurance company to pay. Beyond challenging, it can be deadly. Medical error is now the third leading cause of death, behind cancer and heart disease.

That’s why a new trend is emerging: the fast-growing field of patient advocacy. More consumers and families are hiring private professional health advocates, or PPHAs—many who are experienced registered nurses—to guide them through the maze of modern healthcare.

“The healthcare system has become so complex and profit driven, patients gets lost in the shuffle,” says Teri Dreher, an RN who, after 30+ years of critical care nursing, founded North Shore Patient Advocates, LLC (, the Chicago area’s largest advocacy agency, in 2011. (Dreher was  named 2015 Entrepreneur of the Year by her local Chamber of Commerce and also was awarded her industry’s highest honor). “Up to 440,000 patients die in the hospital each year due to medical errors,” says Dreher, citing a 2013 study. “Patients need someone knowledgeable looking out solely for their interests.” 

Dreher learned this firsthand when her father-in-law fell critically ill in Belize. Despite a life-threatening blood clot, the hospital was set to release him. Dreher successfully intervened, but it made her wonder: what if he didn’t have a nurse in the family watching out for him?  

Shortly thereafter, Dreher formed her advocacy agency. It’s not only Chicagoland’s largest, it’s the only one to use a team approach. Dreher’s team currently includes three RN advocates, each with distinct specialties, and a former social worker with a formidable record of winning insurance claims. Based on current demand, Dreher is poised to expand. 

In addition to looking out for patients during a hospitalization, Dreher’s services include:

· Educating patients and their families about their medical conditions

· Asking doctors the questions a layperson wouldn’t know to ask

· Researching a patient’s full range of treatment options following a diagnosis

· Researching and identifying the best doctor, hospital, or nursing home for a patient

· Helping to ensure insurance claims get paid  

Just a decade old, the field of patient advocacy is burgeoning, particularly since the Affordable Care Act. About 20 universities now offer graduate certificate programs. There are two leading trade associations, the National Association of Healthcare Advocacy Consultants and The Alliance of Professional Health Advocates. Dreher belongs to both.  

What do practicing medical professionals think of PPHAs? Most welcome it.

“Many people think ‘advocate’ implies ‘adversarial,’ but that’s not true,” says Dreher. “Busy doctors would rather spend five minutes updating a medical professional than 20 minutes with an overwhelmed patient. They know the advocate will educate the patient.”

Still, Dreher says, doctors and hospitals step up their game when they know an insider is watching…yet another way that patients with advocates receive superior healthcare. 

Tips for Advocating for a Sick Family Member

If you don’t hire a professional advocate, Dreher says it’s essential that relatives advocate for their loved ones. Here’s how to get started:

· Be proactive: prepare a medical summary for your loved one in advance, covering health conditions, allergies, physicians, and a current list of medications and dosages. In the event of hospitalization, it’s the fastest way to get staff up to speed.

· Educate yourself about a loved one’s medical condition, but choose sources carefully. Consumer magazines and mass websites are not credible. Consult the National Institutes of Health website ( for health information and for medication information. Ask the doctor where you can read up as well.   

· When choosing a new doctor, ask a trusted healthcare professional for a recommendation. Don’t rely on word of mouth or online reviews.  

·  Try to avoid hospitalization, especially if the patient is elderly. (The elderly are most vulnerable to infections, which rage at hospitals), In the event of hospitalization:

o   Know that doctors and nurses can make mistakes. Pay attention, take notes, provide pertinent information, and ask questions, but in a respectful way.

o   Organize shifts among relatives, ensuring someone is with the patient as much as possible. Only enlist those who pay attention, take notes, and communicate well.

o   Notes should include the name and shifts of nurses and doctors caring for your family member, as well as observations and questions. 

o   Make questions count. Don’t pepper doctors with questions a nurse could answer. Be respectful of their time; it’s key to building good relationships.

o   Make sure the staff wears gloves or uses foam hand sanitizer before touching the patient.

    • Make sure the cleaning staff regularly sanitizes objects staff members touch.

o   Know it’s your right to request medical records for the stay, although you may not receive them until after discharge.

o   Be especially vigilant during admission and discharge, because that’s when staff is working fastest and when errors are most likely to occur. 

Teri also works around the world to save lives and bring healthcare to those in dire poverty.  After serving the poor in Africa for over 12 years through local grass roots mission organizations, improving the quality of healthcare and starting multiple poverty reduction initiatives in South Africa, Nigeria and Tanzania, she recently became the Community Health Catalyst for International Teams, a mission organization based in Elgin, IL.  She speaks often to groups about her passion, the issue of global poverty and what Americans can do to save millions of lives.

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