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Patient & Family Advisors: Pro Bono

July 16, 2013

During the PFCC Conference last month I was asked if I, as a Patient/Family Advisor (PFA), was a “volunteer”. I responded, in kind, as I always do “I donate my professional services pro bono”. In my humble opinion, the PFA role is distinguishable from that of a “traditional” volunteer; however the pay scale remains the same. This seems to have sparked a conversation on a national scale. So let’s scratch the surface.
Black’s Law Dictionary, 2nd Ed. Defines Pro Bono (pro bono publico) “A Latin term meaning for the public good. It is the provision of services that are free to safeguard public interest.” These professional services are generally donated free or at reduced cost to indigent persons, religious, charitable, or other non-profit groups worldwide. Granted, it is most commonly associated with the legal profession, but a developing arena has been business/corporate philanthropy where one can leverage their professional expertise in providing pro bono services to strengthen community organizations. My role as PFA not only draws on my experiences as a patient surviving cancer, but it’s balanced with my 19 years as a business professional and all the education, training and empathy that come with me. Package deal.
What differentiates pro bono services from “traditional” volunteerism is that pro bono services are rendered just as they would be for paying clients. If the work weren’t provided pro bono, the beneficiary (hospital) would otherwise have to make a substantial financial investment to have it done. It is therefore implied that in providing pro bono services one should commit to the quality, timeliness, and professional completion of the role/project just as it would for any paying client. Often the PFA’s responsibilities differ greatly to better leverage the talents and/or expertise of each PFA to make the greatest impact as opposed to resting solely on the “traditional” volunteers’ availability of time. This may include sitting on steering groups, advisory panels, boards or committees to formulate best practices hospital wide. The standardized volunteer uniform is generally displaced for business attire to match the professional nature of the responsibilities.

Yet often the line is blurred and the PFA duties are intrinsically designated to the Volunteer Service Department and are ad hoc and hazy in nature. Many times the organization has no formalized Patient/Family Experience Department that can support direct reporting responsibilities and PFA training. I argue the need for clearly defined roles and mission statements are essential to the maturation of the PFA and the organization. Many successful organizations house their PFA responsibilities within their Volunteer, Quality and Safety, or Risk Management Departments. Unlike being an outside contractual vender; the PFA receives a formal orientation, training on organizational policies and procedures, HIPAA standards, CMS compliance, etc.
It’s important to note that I’m in no way suggesting that the role of a “traditional” volunteer is any less significant than that of the PFA. I continue to separately serve in the role of a volunteer as they (we) are a vital part of our organization. The roles are simply different. A genuine partnership is at the core of any successful infrastructure.
The role of the PFA is a sustainable position that lends value and impact to the organization. Its root obstacles are its lack of reach and scale. This begs the question should the PFA be a paid staff position? We’ll revisit that question another time. For now the big picture perspective is to lend credence to the role of PFA as a champion of patient and family centered care. I learned an important lesson long ago. In business, if you want to be taken seriously, you must put a professional face on what you do and how you do it. Always!

Clearly philanthropic pursuits, either “traditional” volunteerism or pro bono services, are fulfilling, empowering endeavors which allow skilled professionals the ability to make a significant, positive difference to any organization, health care or otherwise. This in addition to raking up valuable karma points while making your mother proud makes it a win-win. So call it whatever you’re most comfortable with. Just keep doing what you’re doing. Now, more than ever, patients and families need a designated, engaged, full time set of eyes, strong shoulders, a heart, and a voice.

Anthony White is surviving late stage IV metastatic head and neck cancer. This experience however, did not claim his life, but instead defined his life’s purpose. Anthony navigated an intensive course with over 370 hours of in-patient chemo therapy, 44 radiation treatments and 3 surgical procedures on his journey towards wellness.
Anthony currently serves as the founding and Senior Patient/Family Advisor at Torrance Memorial Medical Center and Community Liaison for the Cancer Support Community of Redondo Beach, He also proudly partners with noted organizations as an inspirational and informational guest speaker championing patient and family centered care. He is an active member of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, the VHA Inc. and PFCC Partners.

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One Comment
  1. I get the Pro bono/volunteer thing… but respectfully, I see it more ideally suited to professionals earning a living from their profession and for lack of a better word, can “afford” donating their time. Cancer straight-up took earning power from Anthony, but it has enriched him with experiences and knowledge that he should be paid for imparting.

    Yes, the PFA should be a paid position. Patients and families need people like Anthony White, but who is looking out for Anthony?

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