What is Health Advocacy?

What is health advocacy?

I get this question a lot, being as that I had to jump through a lot of hoops, and even travel to Malta, (another story) to become the first internationally certified health advocate outside of North America.  

What does that even mean?  

In today’s information focused age, it is crucial not to confuse the concept of reliable information provider, with that of an advocate.

What is the difference?

If you are given a new diagnosis or medication, what is the first thing you do?  According to a recent study, 80% of all internet users in the U.S. have googled about their health.  This is second only to those who use e-mail! Yet, only half actually received satisfactory answers.  

This is where reliable information comes in to play.  The public needs a comprehensive resource to answer their health questions.  When discussing health related rights and benefits, this means a well-researched database, or an organized user-friendly service center provided by public or private funding.  

This resource is crucial because, in today’s data age, we need to trustworthy information sources.  I’m thrilled that many government offices are making their services available online or have walk in hours where residents can access essential information.

The point of health advocacy is not only to impart reliable information, but also to set the scene for future empowerment, a feeling of “I got this.”  It can be a momentary meeting or an ongoing interaction, but its goal is to leave you, well, even a bit more at peace.

However, it is also essential to understand that this is NOT advocacy; this is information access, and it is not the same.  

Case in point.  My child is in the hospital and I have heard that we are eligible for a food subsidy during that time.  I walk into an information center. The agent there gives me the name of an accurate, and monitored website with up-to-date legal information.  She may even hand over the forms I would need to complete in order to receive this benefit. Super helpful. A needed service. Not advocacy.

What would health advocacy look like in that scenario?

Same hospitalization. Same walk in.  The agent sits with me for 20 minutes. Asks me a series of questions about my family’s health situation.  

Realizes that 1) I’m not registered in the hospital which I need to be in order to access benefits, 2) can’t read in English so getting the forms won’t help, and 3) have a chronically ill husband at home.   

The advocate then sits with me to complete the forms together, makes a call to the hospital registrar office and goes through the necessary processes to register me, and then gives me a checklist of additional information I need for our next appointment to complete the process.

Advocacy is only partially about providing information.  It is more about breaking down information into accessible bits that are digestible to the client sitting in front of you.  

Advocacy is about empowering people to feel that, whatever the process they need to engage in, and it may be complicated and long, it IS surmountable, and, they are not alone.  The advocate is in their corner.

Advocacy is an acquired skill set that combines knowledge, understanding of behavior modification, empathy, with a sense of responsibility.  

The point of health advocacy is not only to impart reliable information, but also to set the scene for future empowerment, a feeling of “I got this.”  It can be a momentary meeting or an ongoing interaction, but its goal is to leave you, well, even a bit more at peace.

We do need both services, but let’s not confuse information with advocacy.

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