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Patient advocates are not doctors, and they're not lawyers. Instead, they fall somewhere in between, helping the seriously ill navigate the often complex world of treatment options, patients' rights, insurance and government benefits. They are, in a sense, a personal assistant for patients and their families, who help make sure they have all the information they need to make the best decisions and who make sure those decisions are carried out. Patient advocacy as a career is a relatively new niche created by the increased complexity of the for-profit medical and health insurance industries, though, so most positions are entry-level.
Get educated. It's rare to find a college-level program devoted to patient advocacy. Instead, patient advocates come from a variety of backgrounds, but virtually all have some college-level education. Any degree in health care, medicine, public health or social work can be an important part of a resume. Others come to patient advocacy after careers in law or medicine.
Learn the medical industry (and keep learning). The work of a patient advocate is more generalist than specialist, with the advocate tending to address all the needs of her clients rather than specializing in unique areas. Thus, despite achieving a degree, a patient advocate must gain experience that imparts a thorough knowledge of laws, policies and practices of managed health care and related institutions. Even working patient advocates have to stay updated on laws, policies and treatment options.
Find jobs. Patient advocates can be hired by and for hospitals, insurance companies or patients themselves. Thus, there is a wide range of job opportunities, but finding them can be a challenge. Typical online job listing sites like Craigslist and Monster.com can be helpful. MedHunters, a job-search site specifically for the medical industry, also has patient advocate listings (see Resources).
Joseph Nicholson is an independent analyst whose publishing achievements include a cover feature for "Futures Magazine" and a recurring column in the monthly newsletter of a private mint. He received a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Florida and is currently attending law school in San Francisco.