Skip to main content

New program offers patient advocacy certificate online

April 2, 2013 By Käri Knutson

Cindi Gatton worked in the business of health care for much of her career.

But after the illnesses of her parents and brother, she had a whole new appreciation of how difficult navigating the system can be.

“My brother was an executive and yet he struggled to understand the health care system,” Gatton says.

That was when Gatton, who lives in Atlanta, decided she wanted to help others by changing careers and becoming a patient advocate.

Photo: Meg Gaines


UW-Madison’s Center for Patient Partnerships (CPP) had offered classroom courses in patient advocacy before but last fall, for the first time, began an online option for its certificate program. Development of the online Consumer Health Advocacy Certificate was funded in part through a Morgridge Match Grant.

“UW has such a reputation,” Gatton says. “This has been a real opportunity for me. I couldn’t have packed up and moved for a year.”

CPP was founded in 2000 with the goal of improving health care quality through patient advocacy. Housed at the UW Law School, CPP is an interdisciplinary center of the schools of Law, Medicine and Public Health, Nursing and Pharmacy.

Director and law Professor Meg Gaines survived cancer and transformed her own self-advocacy experience into a model for consumer-centered patient advocacy. The center educates future service professionals such as doctors, lawyers, social workers, psychologists, nurses, policymakers and others about what it’s like to truly advocate with a client facing serious illness.

A pilot online patient advocacy course took place last spring. When the conversation to offer online courses started a couple of years ago, Gaines had her doubts.

“I thought, you can never teach listening and empathy online,” Gaines says. “I was totally wrong. You can not only do it, but in some ways, you can teach it better online because people have the time to absorb things. They can step away when they need to and step back in — you can’t do that in a classroom.”

While lessons are taught using videos, podcasts, case studies and readings, the course is an online community where students interact, share ideas and ask questions.

Gaines says offering courses online is especially helpful in getting introverted students to participate.

“I thought, you can never teach listening and empathy online. I was totally wrong. You can not only do it, but in some ways, you can teach it better online because people have the time to absorb things. ”

Meg Gaines

“Not everyone is comfortable in a classroom,” Gaines says.

Because patient advocacy is a new and emerging discipline, Gaines says it’s important to reach students where they are, whether that’s in Madison or in Atlanta.

“The traditional classroom setting is going to be the exception to the rule in 50 years,” Gaines says.

The students come from many walks of life and live all over the country, making the online program yet another example of the Wisconsin Idea at work. It also serves as an example of Educational Innovation, Interim Chancellor David Ward’s initiative to customize the learning experience and find innovative ways of educating students.

“It’s very exciting to have this whole new dimension as a teacher,” Gaines says.

Patients also benefit tremendously, Gaines says, because they don’t have to leave their homes to receive support. They merely have to pick up the phone or videoconference from their laptop.

“We’ve already learned so much,” says CPP director of educational development Kathy O’Connell. “We are now a digital society and this is how people are learning. We have to make that jump.”

O’Connell says students became comfortable interacting with each other right from the start. They enjoyed each other’s company enough online so much that they all decided to come to campus the first week of the semester to meet other students and to participate in a CPP “Boot Camp.”

“The depth of community they had when they got here, though they had never been in the same room before, was extraordinary,” O’Connell says. “We’re using technology to foster connections between students and patients, to enhance the experience of patients and students learning together.”

This semester, the students are taking part in a service learning online class where they’re assigned clients and cases, all under the supervision of CPP staff.

“They’re not only learning from us but from the clients and each other,” O’Connell says.

By being able to offer this certificate program online, it opens the growing field to students who might not otherwise be able to enroll at the UW or find training where they live.

Very few universities offer patient advocacy training and UW’s is the only one with a service learning component.

“Our students learn by doing,” says Sarah Davis, clinical assistant professor of law and associate director of CPP. “It’s an exciting opportunity to offer this much-needed training widely and in a hands-on way.”

Patient advocacy is a new and emerging field but one that can have a positive impact on the healthcare system, Davis says.

“It’s a complex system,” Davis says. “Even in the best of circumstances, getting a life-threatening or chronic diagnosis is overwhelming. Patient advocates can help save money, reduce errors and ensure that patients get only the care they need and want. They fill a critical role.”

Tags: health care, law