The role of the advocate in our community must not be underestimated. Advocates become involved in cases after communication has broken down between individuals, families and the NHS or social care services. Our jobs ideally should not exist, but for those we support, we are a lifeline for support and information.
Giving people a voice
For the past three years I have worked as an independent advocate for Age Cymru Gwynedd and Mon (with no formal affiliation to the NHS or social services), and in this role I have helped 749 people. A large proportion of this work involves attending meetings on behalf of or alongside patients.
We all know how frustrating it can be when people do not listen to us. Unfortunately, having an illness or a mental health problem can sometimes mean that it’s even harder to voice your opinion and for your wishes to be taken seriously.
Competing demands for families
I recently picked up four cases involving people in care homes. Their families had contacted me to say that their relatives had been discharged without proper planning, and without being allocated an advocate.
Families of those who are ill or in care homes are often busy worrying about their relative and the practical demands of their illness - finances, property, the day-to-day care. Navigating and challenging the confusing health and social care system is just not a top priority.
Looking out for their best interests
A period of illness is a stressful time for patients as well as for their families. The best-laid plans can go awry and judgement is sometimes impaired. Patients need someone who can look out for their best interests and cut through red tape, clarifying options for hospitals and doctors, obtaining information or asking specific questions. This support can result in faster discharge with everyone involved feeling aware of what’s going on and what their next steps are.
Here to help, not hinder
After three years of working as an advocate, I have found that many in the medical profession do not really understand the role of the advocate and the legal obligations that are inherent to the role. Myself and fellow patient advocates have struggled on a daily basis to obtain information (despite having the patient’s consent) and to be meaningfully involved so that we could help people plan their futures.
Having an independent, professional supporter that the patient can trust, who is not viewed as part of the ‘establishment’ can be very useful, especially at a time when the NHS is stretched. Health and care professionals are often so busy that they simply don’t have the time to sit down and talk each individual through their options and care plan.
Let’s start working together
I believe that the third sector and the NHS can work together to make sure that everyone has fair access to information and services in order to lead healthier lives. Third sector professionals work out in the community on a daily basis and in my role as an advocate I have been involved with issues spanning health, housing, poverty, safeguarding and many more that influence a person’s overall welfare.
Third sector organisations need to be recognised, supported and involved in the development of the health and care system as a key part of the public health workforce.
We need to be allies, not adversaries. Please – for all our sakes – let’s start working together.