Happy young nurse with elderly patient

The Role of Nurses in Patient Advocacy

What Patient Advocacy Means, and Why it Matters

Happy young nurse with elderly patient

Patients admitted to the hospital due to illness or injury are in a uniquely vulnerable situation. Diagnosing and treating medical issues requires years of training, so even alert and well-informed patients may not fully understand what’s happening to them. And because many people who need medical attention may not be able to think or communicate clearly, it’s critical for nurses and other healthcare providers to act as advocates for their patients’ well-being.

Let’s take a deeper look at why patient advocacy is so important for nurses and the vital role nurses play in ensuring every patient receives ethical and effective care.

Patient Advocacy Definition

What Is Patient Advocacy?

An advocate is somebody who speaks or acts in support of another person or group, usually because the advocate is in a position of influence. In the broadest sense, patient advocacy means nurses have a moral and ethical obligation to protect the rights and well-being of the people under their care.

Regardless of their medical condition, background, or life choices, every patient has a right to equitable care, privacy, and the ability to make decisions about their own health. As the primary patient contact in most healthcare settings, nurses must be willing to speak up when they suspect their patients’ rights, autonomy, or safety are at risk of being jeopardized.

Patient advocacy is so crucial for nurses that it has a dedicated section in the American Nurses Association’s Code of Ethics. Provision 3 states, “the nurse promotes, advocates for, and protects the rights, health, and safety of the patient.” It’s a big responsibility and not one to be taken lightly.

The Role of Nurses in Patient Advocacy

Because nurses spend more time with patients than any other healthcare providers, they are able to advocate for patients in a wide variety of healthcare settings—and even outside healthcare facilities.

Patient Advocacy in Clinical Settings

In clinical settings, nurses have a massive range of roles and responsibilities when it comes to advocating for their patients. They often communicate with patients to understand their symptoms or pain levels, so they can take action or make recommendations to their colleagues. Nurses must also be willing to speak up if they notice another provider showing bias toward their patient or making a mistake with medication dosages or other forms of treatment. Finally, they must be willing to put their feelings aside and honor their patients’ wishes, especially in end-of-life decisions and other highly personal choices.

Patient Advocacy with Families

Patient advocacy for nurses goes beyond being detail-oriented when it comes to each patient’s medical care. Nurses also advocate for their patients by educating families and caregivers about treatment options and community resources. Sometimes, they even advise on navigating the legal system or dealing with insurance companies. Nurses may also have an ethical obligation to intervene if a difficult family member is making decisions or taking actions that put their patient at risk.

Patient Advocacy in the Community

Due to their firsthand experience treating patients and witnessing the realities of the healthcare system, nurses also make excellent advocates for public health policy. By getting involved with local and national health organizations, nurses can become powerful advocates for policies and legislation that address health inequities and improve access to care.

The Skills and Qualities Required for Effective Patient Advocacy

Nursing requires more than just memorizing how to perform certain procedures and what to do in everyday clinical situations. To become effective patient advocates, nurses must develop a number of “soft skills” outside their clinical training.

Fortunately, modern nursing training programs recognize the importance of patient advocacy and include several courses that help future nurses hone their leadership and people skills. Nursing students also spend a lot of time studying ethics in healthcare, so they’re prepared to take appropriate action in the challenging situations they’re almost sure to encounter.

Communication Skills

Whether they’re communicating with patients or colleagues, nurses must be excellent listeners and able to express themselves clearly and confidently. Nurses may need to convince patients to be honest about their symptoms or medical history or tactfully challenge a colleague when they recognize a potentially dangerous error. The ability to reason clearly and keep your cool in difficult conversations is an invaluable skill for any nurse.

Female nurse helping an elderly patient

Empathy and Compassion

Nurses must be able to provide everyone they treat with the same level of dignity, care, and compassion. Advocating for your patients means recognizing when they’re scared or overwhelmed and taking the time to help people understand their medical rights and options. Sometimes, it may simply mean providing a listening ear when your patient needs to feel heard.

Cultural Competence

Nurses care for people of all different backgrounds, and being able to relate to other people’s beliefs and values is an essential part of advocating for patients. People are often nervous or in pain when receiving medical care, and making them feel at ease can make a significant difference in their patient-care experience.

Modern nursing programs take cultural competence seriously, and nursing students receive plenty of training on respecting each patient’s individuality.

The Benefits of Patient Advocacy

Effective patient advocacy benefits more than just patients. It also has far-reaching implications for healthcare organizations and nurses themselves.

How Advocacy Benefits Patients

When patients work with nurses who are committed to informing them about their rights and options, they have a better healthcare experience. Nurses who fulfill their role as advocates often lead to better patient health outcomes and less emotional and financial hardship for patients and their families.

How Advocacy Benefits Nurses

Most people become nurses because they are strongly compelled to serve others. One survey found that 96% of nurses consider their career as their calling in life, more so than just a job. When nurses have the necessary support and resources to advocate for their patients, they are often more satisfied with their jobs and feel personally fulfilled by their day-to-day work.

How Advocacy Benefits Healthcare Organizations

When healthcare organizations prioritize patient advocacy, they also reap the benefits of improved health outcomes and patient experiences. Workflows and policies that help nurses advocate for their patients can prevent costly errors and minimize legal risks. People are also much more likely to return to a healthcare facility in the future (or make recommendations to their friends) if they feel the nurses and other providers are looking out for the patient’s best interest above all else.

The Importance of Interdisciplinary Collaboration in Patient Advocacy

Helping patients get well is something no healthcare provider can accomplish on their own. It often takes an entire team of people to provide patients with the treatment and resources they need. As part of patient advocacy, nurses frequently collaborate with other professionals like physicians, surgeons, pharmacists, social workers, and case managers.

Interdisciplinary collaboration between health professionals is essential to providing the best patient-care experience. Every specialist has their own observations and opinions, so bringing together everyone’s expertise helps create a holistic view of each patient’s health and determine the best path forward.

Since they spend more time with patients than other providers, nurses play an important role in facilitating collaboration and communication between health staff. These interactions help avoid medical errors, reduce inefficiencies within the clinical environment, and connect patients with essential resources they need to continue their care.

Close up of medial workers joining hands

The Challenges and Barriers to Effective Patient Advocacy

Time and attention are two of the most important factors in effectively advocating for patients—and for many overworked nurses, both can be in short supply. When nurses have too many patients to keep track of, they may be too busy juggling competing tasks to give each patient the attention they deserve.

Poor communication or coordination between healthcare staff can also be a significant barrier to patient advocacy. When nurses don’t have sufficient autonomy or adequate support from the administration or colleagues, their ability to advocate for their patients can become compromised. Effective patient advocacy requires creating an environment where nurses are empowered to speak up and where everyone puts their egos aside for the good of the patient.

Patient advocacy is more than an industry buzzword—it’s an essential element of caring for anyone who comes through the doors of a hospital or clinic. A nurse who shows they genuinely care about what’s best for their patient can totally change somebody’s experience and even their perceptions about the healthcare system.

As nurses continue to navigate staffing shortages and other workplace challenges, a renewed focus on patient advocacy can be a centering influence for many people who could use a reminder of why they got into healthcare in the first place. Seeing a patient or family member smile in a vulnerable moment because they got the needed support will always be a rewarding experience for any nurse.

Start Your Career in Nursing Today

When you attend the BSN program at Provo College, you’ll receive up-to-date instruction on how to become an effective patient advocate and learn how to maintain high ethical standards throughout your nursing career. Whether protecting patients’ privacy or navigating challenging conversations, you’ll graduate ready to make a difference for your patients and their loved ones.

Looking to learn more about a career as an RN? Check out our detailed guide on how to become a registered nurse, and explore some of the highest-paying nursing jobs.