When you think of a patient advocate, you might conjure images of a crusading family member or a spunky nurse standing up to a faceless bureaucratic healthcare system.

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The truth about patient advocacy is less melodramatic and far more practical. An advocate is an individual, usually a family member or close friend, who helps a patient — in other words, a healthcare consumer — to successfully navigate an increasingly complex, expensive, and technical healthcare system.

As a healthcare marketer, you should view advocates as potential strategic partners – they are essential in your goal to build and sustain brand loyalty within a desirable market or population!

To reach, engage and convert this audience you need to understand the persona of patient advocates so we're diving into their demographics. Gaining a more complete picture of this diverse population can help you market to them more effectively.

What are patient advocates?
Think of an advocate as the healthcare industry equivalent of a personal shopper, executive assistant, quality control auditor, and accountant, all rolled into one:

  • Like personal shoppers, they research treatment options, evaluate potential provider profiles, compare pharmaceutical brands, and search for clinical trials.
  • Like executive assistants, they coordinate schedules, make doctor appointments, and sometimes accompany the patient into the examination room.
  • Like QC auditors, they demand and monitor quality of care, especially the bedside care of nurses and other front-line providers.
  • Like accountants, they evaluate costs, organize bills, monitor cash flow, and contact billing departments and insurers to discuss charges.

Precise figures for the number of patient advocates are hard to come by. A doctor at John Hopkins Health System reported that 70% of his elderly patients have one. In 2012, the Alliance of Professional Health Advocates estimated that “tens of thousands" work in a volunteer capacity. Moreover, “an estimated 34 to 62 million unpaid caregivers, typically relatives" take care of older adults, according to the Keenan Institute for Private Enterprise.

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Who are patient advocates?
The majority volunteer for the role, usually as a family member or close friend working informally, without an official job title. Others volunteer through nonprofits, work professionally for hospitals or other organizations, or hire themselves out to individual consumers as a kind of consultant. Certain professions, such as nursing or social work, sometimes refer to themselves as advocates.

Most are simply concerned loved ones who have chosen to help someone too old, too young, or too infirm to interact with the system alone. Due to their personal relationship, these advocates can have a valuable understanding of the consumer's needs, desires, medical history, consumer tastes, and attitudes.

To develop a consumer persona for a “typical" advocate (if one indeed exists), start with personality traits or skills that an effective advocate should possess. A "typical" advocate is:

  • Empathetic. As a volunteer, they are likely to have above-average levels of sensitivity and understanding. As your consumer, remember that they aren't buying for themselves or have their own welfare in mind. Instead, consider them an extension of the patient, expressing the patient's needs and desires, not their own.
  • Communicative. They know how to act as an intermediary between a patient with possibly impaired communication skills and professionals with possibly limited customer service skills. They have a talent for active listening and will, over time, build relationships with your staff.
  • Proactive. They don't wait for people to tell them what needs to be done. Their job is to punch through the natural inertia of procedure-driven environments, such as hospitals, to assure an individualized and high-quality level of care. If a problem arises, such as poor nursing, they can bring it up before the system is even aware of it.
  • Organized. They know how to conduct research, especially online, take notes during meetings, and keep track of an ever-growing pile of appointments, prescriptions, and bills. Like a project manager, they may touch upon every aspect of the patient’s health care needs, think creatively, and look for solutions “outside of the box" like alternative therapies and experimental trials.

When messaging to them, for things like caregiver newsletters or even personalized experiences on your website, you can use this insight on their habits and motivation to speak more specifically to their concerns. Providing new advocates with guidance, or even some rudimentary training, can build trust and help integrate them into your overall system of care.

Develop a cooperative relationship
By understanding and respecting the advocate's role in the provider-consumer relationship, you can make them partners in the healing process and loyal consumers for your services.

Start with developing a patient advocate persona. Then open clear lines of communication, and use these lines of communication as a marketing channel. Some ideas include:

  • Request feedback through surveys or focus groups
  • Put on patient-advocate focused events
  • Segment your newsletters

Treating this group as healthcare consumers in their own right can help win their loyalty on behalf of the people they care for as well as on their own. Caregivers for patients with serious, chronic, or long-term conditions may suffer from overwork, stress, and sleep deprivation. If you offer a well-thought-out program of support for advocates, it will be easier for them to do their job and they will reward you with their loyalty.

Want more insight into engaging today's healthcare consumers and inspiring loyalty? Read our guide to bringing the Amazon experience to healthcare.