Health Advocacy: From Patient To Professional Advocate

Leslie Rott Health Guide
  • For those who don’t know, I’ll be graduating from the Master’s in Health Advocacy program at Sarah Lawrence College in May of 2015.


    When I became chronically ill during the first year of my PhD program in Michigan, I decided to complete my PhD, but along the way realized that I no longer desired a career as an academic sociologist.  I had contemplated getting a master’s degree in public health or social work while I worked on my PhD but none of those programs felt right to me.


    But when I stumbled on the Health Advocacy Master’s program at Sarah Lawrence College, it felt right to me in so many ways. 

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    So after getting my PhD, I embarked on getting a second master’s degree.


    A critical difference between a PhD program and a master’s program is that a master’s program has built-in practical applications.  I was required to complete three internships. 


    One of my placements was at the Hospital for Special Surgery, which specializes in orthopedics and rheumatology.


    Almost everyone in my program completes a hospital placement because hospitals are the most common place where a patient advocate works. 


    I didn’t know how I would fare in a hospital setting, to be honest.  Advocating for oneself is one thing, advocating for others is another. 


    But I loved it.  It was the first time since moving to New York that I felt I had a place for myself. 


    Helping patients navigate the system in ways big and small, and helping them get the services and support they are looking for is truly rewarding.


    It goes beyond personal victories and makes me think that, even in small ways, as a professional patient advocate, I can change the system in important ways.  It’s not to say that patients can’t do that as well, but having a professional degree behind my name gives me more credibility. 


    Obviously, an academic degree isn’t practical or possible for some people, but you can’t just walk into a hospital and become a patient advocate.  You need training, even if you are used to (and good at) advocating for yourself as a patient. There are skills beyond that, which need to be learned. 


    Many people are not even aware that such a program exists.  Currently, there is a movement to create a nationwide certification program so that people can become certified as a patient advocate, rather than having to go through the process of obtaining an academic degree.


    To be sure, health advocacy encompasses more than just patient advocacy, and not all of my peers will ultimately end up working directly with patients. 


    Health advocacy, in general, and patient advocacy in particular, is a growing field.  As I came to realize, social work and public health alone do not amount to health advocacy. 


    It is incredibly exciting to be working in a field that is not only interdisciplinary, but is helping to change lives for the better in innumerable ways. 


    One interesting thing about the program is that there is a pretty even mix between students under 30 and those who are over 50.  Most of us come to the program with some personal experience that has helped guide us toward this field, and while the personal experiences help motivate, the professional side is at the core of what the program is about.      


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    The program at Sarah Lawrence is the first and longest running health advocacy program in the country.  For more information on the Sarah Lawrence program, visit  


Published On: October 12, 2014