[Ed Note: In this latest commentary on the development of Healthy People 2020 objectives, Joanna Smith, LCSW, MPH, the founder and CEO of Healthcare Liaison looks at the growing field of private healthcare advocacy. Joanna is an active proponent for the advancement of this field and is a leader in the development of professional standards for practitioners. In 2007, Healthcare Liaison established the nation's first accreditation program for private healthcare advocates.]
The emergence of the Internet as a tool for improving healthcare delivery has had an unanticipated, but well documented consequence: as consumers migrate to a world of e-health, there’s a growing need for a human interface to help make sense of it all. A rapidly growing profession called private healthcare advocacy [pdf file] has materialized to address this need. This raises the questions: who is qualified to practice as a private healthcare advocate, and should there be professional standards to protect consumers?
Joshua Seidman’s piece on Healthy People 2020 and the democratization of health information points out that while more and more people use the Internet to get health information, many do not know how to use the information they find, and still need the assistance of a professional to understand and use it.
Similarly, in the California Healthcare Foundation’s April 2008 report, “The Wisdom of Patients: Health Care Meets Online Social Media [pdf],” Jude O’Reilley, an expert on health information exchange online is quoted, A common part of the consumer’s health experience is to face a health challenge, Google it, spend 20 minutes getting totally overwhelmed, and then do what they did in the 1980’s: Call a friend and work through their offline social networks.
Here’s the challenge. We know that consumers are turning to the Internet and other sources to find private healthcare advocates for assistance. But “You get what you Google” — how do you know you’re dealing with a professional?
Private healthcare advocates assist clients of all ages in managing a number of healthcare related issues, including understanding complex medical situations, assessing treatment options; monitoring in-patient hospital stays and out-patient treatment, identifying and arranging appropriate resources; and intervening with insurers to help resolve payment or coverage issues.
Currently there are no established standards for private healthcare advocates. As a result, practitioners represent a diverse population with varying educational backgrounds and professional experience. Thus, consumers seeking the assistance of a private healthcare advocate have no reliable way to assess the expertise, ethics and business practices of an individual practitioner.
As we look at Healthy People 2020, we need to develop standards for this profession and ensure that only trained professionals can use the title “Private Healthcare Advocate." To address this problem, I established the nation’s first accreditation program for private healthcare advocates in October of 2007.
The landscape is rapidly changing for this profession. At this point, there is one credentialing program in the country (through Healthcare Liaison in CA). California is also beginning to consider licensing by the state, and there is a National Association of Private Healthcare Advocates forming.
We need discussion among medically trained people and consumers about the kind of regulation that would best protect consumers and provide consistently trained professionals in this field.
Let’s begin the dialogue now.