By Marti Webb Slay
As an independent patient advocate, Jeff W. Byars, NREMT, BCPA wants healthcare professionals to know advocacy for patients doesn’t translate to being adversarial toward physicians and nurses.
“Some hear ‘patient advocate’ and get somewhat defensive,” said the founding advocate of Sun Back Moon. “I’m not necessarily there because there’s a problem. I’m there to help facilitate between the patient care team and my client, their patient. A lot of that comes down to improving communication.
“Hospital-based patients advocates often get pulled in when there’s a problem. Just because I’m in there, doesn’t mean there’s a problem. A lot of what I do is to try and prevent that. I’m there as a tool for the healthcare team to help things along and help improve the outcome.”
Byars will initially spend as much as two to three hours with a client, learning about his or her diagnosis, doctors, and concerns. “Sometimes they aren’t sure what they are looking for,” he said. “The just know they need help.”
His services for his clients can vary widely, ranging from setting up second opinion or follow-up appointments to helping locate medical records for insurance approval or resolving billing issues.
Sometimes Byars attends physician appointments with his clients. “Often, elderly patients have adult children who can’t pull away from work to go to the doctor with them, and they want someone who can relay the information, make notes and ask questions,” he said. “A patient advocate working with all the specialists can help give a clearer picture to the patient care team. I’m getting the story played out to me over two to three hours in my initial visit, versus a physician who may have 15 minutes with them. It’s not always white coat syndrome, but the pressure to get everything relayed while the doctor is in the room.”
Byars will also coordinate medical travel for clients, if needed. “I have traveled extensively with my daughter and know there are a ton of resources out there that are often overlooked,” he said. “Everyone knows about Ronald McDonald houses, but there are other resources for people who have to travel for medical reasons.”
Moving elderly parents closer to their children is an additional aspect of medical travel that can be difficult to maneuver. “When the parents live three states away and need more care, we can’t just put them in a car and move them. They need to get closer to home by ambulance or air transport. There’s a lot of negotiation involved, and timing can change the price. Insurance doesn’t pay to move a parent three states away for convenience. If we can help negotiate a better price and save the family money, that’s a benefit,” he said.
Byars had worked for many years as an accountant, conducting reimbursement audits for both private and governmental insurance, so he was familiar with the business side of healthcare. As an EMT for 30 years with his local fire department, he also knew a great deal about the patient care side of the process. But all that knowledge was challenged when his seven-month-old daughter required treatment for cancer.
“There were a lot of moving pieces, and it was hard for me to navigate,” he said. “If it was hard for me to navigate with my background, for someone with no medical experience at all, it’s a near impossible task.”
In 2018, Byars was one of the first two people in Alabama to become a Board Certified Patient Advocate (BCPA) under the Patient Advocate Certification Board. He said there are now eight or nine certified advocates in the state, some of whom are hospital based. He wishes there were more.
“I would welcome competition. We are underserved in Alabama compared to other parts of the country,” he said. “I think the more of us that jump into this, the more word will get out.”
Byars said one big drawback for the profession is that patients have to pay for their own independent advocates, limiting his ability to help many people who need his services. “My clients have to be in a position to afford it, and I hate that,” he said.
While Byars works on behalf of the patients, he can serve physicians too. “I offer consulting services to physicians and physician groups to help them improve their process, to make it easier for their patients to navigate and more patient-centered,” he said. “That can include the flow for check-in to being able to call in and reach somebody in patient relations. I’ve spent time on the patient side and know what makes it easier, as well as what makes it more difficult. My ultimate goal is to make healthcare systems better for individuals and families and work with the healthcare team to improve outcomes for everyone.”