Medical travel could be an overwhelming experience for international patients as they have to seek solutions to their healthcare concerns miles away from home, and sometimes in a country they have never travelled to before. The complexities of the care journey for medical tourists requires highly skilled persons, called medical advocates, who will help them navigate the care system, and guide them into optimizing the patient care experience.
A patient advocate acts as a representative for individuals requiring assistance with their health care needs. Patient advocacy, in essence, is the primary driver of all aspects of quality improvement. From patient management to communication and education and everything in between, the patient advocate is tasked with ensuring that the patient´s best interests are being looked after.
The role of the patient advocate is particularly important in the context of medical travel due to the complex nature of procuring healthcare across borders. Medical records need to be obtained, questionnaires completed, flights and lodging booked, and payment made to an overseas organization.
Once the patient is at the medical travel destination, he or she needs to see various specialists and go through an admittance process that may be foreign to them. Informed consent must be explained, feedback obtained, and complaints need to be addressed, all with the goal of providing a safe and high-quality patient experience. Healthcare providers should keep in mind that most international patients have little or no knowledge of the medical tourism process or the procedures or protocols used by overseas hospitals. Therefore, significant handholding by a patient coordinator will be required to ensure that the patient’s needs are met.
Important characteristics of patient advocates
The role of a patient advocate requires an individual who is first and foremost empathetic patients’ needs and expectations. Additionally, they should be culturally competent, understand the medical travel patient journey, be comfortable explaining medical concepts, and responsive to a wide variety of patient needs during the entire patient stay. There are several essential roles for the patient advocate
Patient Communication: The patient advocate is an essential link between healthcare providers and the patient, communicating with the healthcare team on patient’s behalf, gathering all the
details about patient treatment and care outcomes. The patient advocate also ensures that communication is not a barrier to patient interactions, in which case, they provide or arrange for interpretation and translation where necessary.
Patient advocates are highly trained in cultural competence, ensuring that all patient interactions and communications are culturally appropriate and do not negatively impact the patient experience.
Care Navigation: Patient advocates are efficient care navigators, guiding patients through all phases of the medical travel care continuum including those related to their clinical care and those related to travel, hotel and other tourist activities as needed or requested by the patient.
These roles include helping patients arrange medical appointments and seek second opinions from other healthcare providers, helping patients navigate their care options, and helping them fill out applications and other important forms. They also work with medical travel facilitators to ensure other aspects of the care journey, including accommodation and recreation are top-notch.
Conflict Resolution: Patient advocates are strong problem-solving skills as well as interpersonal skills, which come in handy in managing disputes and challenging situations during the care journey.
Patient advocates are key agents in helping to resolve disputes between patients and their insurance companies or their healthcare providers. They communicate on behalf of the patient, putting patient care as top priority and fighting for their rights to optimal care and an excellent patient care experience. They also ensure all patient complaints and concerns are registered and addressed in a timely manner.
Cost Negotiation: The job of the patient advocate does not stop at communication and ensuring an excellent care experience, they are also integral to driving down costs of care when necessary. Patient advocates could help negotiate medical bills with healthcare providers and even initiate cost-saving strategies along the care journey.
In addition, when needed, the patient advocate helps patients find legal and financial resources to help them clearly analyze their medical bills and reach a reasonable agreement with providers and medical tourism businesses.
Care Evaluation: Patient advocates encourage patients to be involved in their own care, assessing every phase of the care continuum, and identifying areas they think could be improved. They do this by encouraging patients and any companions to respond to all requests for feedback on their experiences.
The job does not stop at monitoring the quality of care, patient advocates also serve as agents of change, helping healthcare providers and medical tourism companies identify gaps in the care process to ensure better care is provided during subsequent visits or medical care journeys.
Global Healthcare Accreditation
Global Healthcare Accreditation (GHA), an accreditor with standards specific for medical travel patients, has an entire chapter in its accreditation standards focused on best practices in patient advocacy.
According to Bill Cook, GHA’s Director of Business Development and Marketing, “Accessing healthcare across regions or borders can be very confusing and anxiety-producing for patients and their companions. As questions arise, instructions may not be understood, the need for a variety of tests and appointments not clearly explained, forms may be confusing, and other factors may mean the patient requires an individual to help them navigate the care continuum for the medical travel patient.
A best practice for medical travel programs is to assign one or more individuals to personally assist the patient and any companions through the entire experience. Often, this might be a patient coordinator from the international office or someone whose job is to assist international patients during their time at the hospital. However, all personnel who are in daily contact with international patients should be trained to act as patient advocates. This requires periodic staff training to ensure that frontline personnel understand patient needs, and the challenges they face when procuring care abroad.”
The medical travel journey is complex and could be overwhelming for a medical tourist visiting a country for the first time. Patient advocates play an integral role in ensuring a seamless medical travel continuum by guiding medical tourists through the care journey and ensuring the receive the best care they can get. As patients become more intentional about their medical travel choices, patient advocacy is becoming a crucial point in medical travel, and one that has become a key differentiator in a highly competitive industry.