The Different Faces of Patient Advocacy in Medical Travel

Imagine for a moment that you had to seek medical care in another country or even another region of your own country. What concerns would you have? What information would you want? What services would you need? How would you and your companion or family want to be treated?

Each year, hundreds of thousands of patients travel for medical care to destinations around the globe.[1] Whether they are traveling from Nigeria to Germany, Myanmar to Thailand, Saudi Arabia to the United States, Canada to Costa Rica or from Alabama to Cleveland, medical travelers require many support mechanisms to ensure they have a successful treatment outcome and a high-quality patient experience.

The role of the patient advocate

In many healthcare settings, patients often have the support of patient advocates. These are individuals that act as representatives for patients who require assistance with their health care needs. According to the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, patient advocates can provide support in a number of ways including[2]:

  • Clarifying a patient’s options for hospitals, doctors, diagnostic tests and procedures or treatment choices.
  • Getting information or asking specific questions
  • Writing down information that patients receive from their caregivers, as well as any questions they may have.
  • Assuring that the patient’s wishes are carried out when the patient may not be able to express these.

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 importance of patient advocacy during medical travel

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. Depending on the patient’s particular circumstances, he or she may need to:

  • obtain medical records;
  • complete forms or questionnaires;
  • get medical tests done;
  • determine if the destination healthcare provider is the right one for their needs (including vetting the physician);
  • understand financial obligations;
  • procure a passport and/or visa; and
  • reserve flights and accommodation.

All of the above needs to be done before traveling to the destination healthcare provider and while often facing language and cultural barriers. Travel offers up other challenges, so by the time the patient reaches the hotel or the hospital, they can be forgiven for feeling a little disoriented and stressed out. Once patients arrive at the hospital or clinic, they may have challenges orienting themselves if signage and wayfinding are not available in their language (or even if they are), they may require assistance getting pre-operative tests done or even completing an informed consent before their treatment.

Healthcare providers should keep in mind that medical travelers often have little or no knowledge about the medical travel process or the procedures or protocols used by overseas hospitals. Therefore significant hand-holding throughout the medical travel care continuum is required to ensure that the patient’s needs and expectations are met.

Everyone in your organization is a potential patient advocate

Patient representatives or navigators are often assigned by healthcare providers as the primary individuals tasked with supporting medical travelers and their companions during their stay at the hospital. As we have seen, however, traveling patients require support not only in the healthcare setting, but at all touch points along the medical travel care continuum. In essence, this means that every person interacting with the patient has the opportunity to function as a patient advocate. From the call center or international patient staff helping with preparation and planning, to the transportation driver, hotel staff, patient navigator, nurses, physicians, receptionists, food staff, security guards and especially the patient’s companion(s) – all should feel equipped and responsible for supporting the traveling patient’s needs. Therefore, anyone who may come into contact with medical travelers should be trained or at least informed about the patient’s needs and expectations.

With patient experience being such an important factor in the perception patients have of healthcare providers, patient advocacy – in all its dimensions – will become even more important and a key differentiator for hospitals competing on a global scale.

[1] Patients Beyond Borders valued  market size as USD 45.5-72 billion,with an annual growth rate of 15-25%.  Retrieved  at https://patientsbeyondborders.com/medical-tourism-statistics-facts April 26, 2018

[2] Role of the Patient Advocate. Institute for Healthcare Improvement. Retrieved at http://www.npsf.org/?page=patientadvocate on April 22, 2018.

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*Medical travel is also commonly known as medical tourism or health tourism.