THE BLOG
02/26/2014 06:13 pm ET | Updated Apr 28, 2014

Am I a Health Advocate?

You are! And as a family caregiver it might just be your most important role.

This past December, I was speaking to a large group of family caregivers when I asked them if they knew any heath advocates. Initially there was confusion over what an advocate was and then, later, caregivers expressed serious trepidation about their ability to be a good one.

Understandable on both counts!

First, as with the term "caregiver," when people are surveyed to define a health advocate most believe that it is just a health professional for hire vs. a role assumed by family members. Consequently, I hear answers like, "Health advocates work for insurance companies or in hospitals to ensure patients are receiving proper health care." Well, they're half right... but for now, let's just focus on the part about patients getting the proper care.

An advocate is defined as, "One that supports or promotes the interests of another." Given this definition, as a family caregiver, you are the ultimate health advocate, because you are constantly supporting the health interests of your loved one.

One of the reasons I refer to family caregivers as noble is that this community demonstrates the highest qualities of compassion, caring and commitment to a loved one's well-being. And nowhere is this more evident than when a caregiver is functioning as a liaison with the doctor's office, hospital staff and various health care personnel to facilitate the flow of crucial and potentially lifesaving information.

Acting as a health advocate doesn't come without its fair share of challenges and you'll want to ensure you're doing your homework so you end up helping -- not unintentionally hindering -- the process. Here are a few key tips:

• Familiarize yourself with your loved one's current condition
• Understand your loved one's physical and emotional needs
• Review the list of medications and possible side effects
• Ensure the doctor's recommendations are being followed

You'll also need to muster up the confidence to voice your questions, observations and concerns, which is a big struggle for even the most capable caregivers. Remember, you're in the trenches day in and day out, so you may witness changes doctors don't.

If you're confused as to why a certain test is being ordered or a medication prescribed, inquire. If you're puzzled by the conclusions a doctor reaches, question them. And, if you're presented with conflicting recommendations from healthcare providers, speak up. Your job is to promote open lines of communication -- and this includes questioning decisions concerning your loved one's health.

Once a closed-door community, the practice of medicine has evolved into a more active "give and take" relationship between physicians, patients, and their family caregivers. Experience shows that acting as an informed, engaged family caregiver will result in a more well-balanced exchange -- and ultimately it will lead to a higher standard of care. Know one thing for sure: doctors appreciate insightful observations of their patients.

Stay on Track with the Three Rs of Advocacy

Remember the facts that are central to your loved one's health.

Remind health care providers when you hear something that conflicts with your daily observations.

Represent your loved one by being a knowledgeable custodian of his or her health and well-being.

Help yourself. Help others.