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2. Know whom you're hiring.
"Some advocates have been trained as doctors or nurses, or have earned a master's degree in health advocacy, while others may have just helped Aunt Mary through her cancer treatment," warns patient advocacy expert Trisha Torrey, author of You Bet Your Life: The 10 Mistakes Every Patient Makes. When choosing an advocate, keep in mind that you'll not only be relying on this individual to coordinate your care, you'll also be entrusting her with private medical information.

In general, an advocate with a medical degree is your best bet, according to Gazelle. Physicians may be better able to explain the intricacies of complex treatment options, and your own doctor may be more comfortable providing information to a colleague. A nurse or healthcare social worker may also be appropriate, depending on your needs. No matter whom you choose, "always request references from past clients, and ask about the level of service and results provided," says Torrey.

3. Ask the right questions.
You want to make sure that an advocate's specialty aligns with your specific needs. Some are adept at providing emotional support, while others concentrate on red tape issues. For example, physicians or nurses tend to excel at translating complicated medical jargon, but social workers can be better equipped to tackle insurance disputes. Also, ask the advocate if he receives a commission for leading patients to a specific hospital or nursing home, which could compromise objectivity.

4. Weigh the costs.
Advocates can charge anywhere from $35 to $200 an hour, but some insurance companies cover the fees (check with your employer's human resources department to see if these services are included in your benefits package).

Free options do exist. The Patient Advocacy Foundation provides pro bono case management and insurance mediation assistance for those with chronic, debilitating, or life-threatening illnesses. Most states also offer resources to help residents appeal insurance claim denials or challenge early hospital discharges (find your State Attorney General's Office at NAAG.org). Currently Connecticut is the only state with a dedicated healthcare advocate's office, but the new federal healthcare reform bill has earmarked $30 million in grants to create similar agencies.

More Advice for Better Healthcare:
  • 3 ways to become your own best advocate
  • Dr. Oz's insider's guide on talking with your doctor
  • What's the right primary care for you?
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