The Hidden Costs of Patient Advocacy

By Barby Ingle, PNN Columnist

I have been advocating for chronic pain patients and the pain community since 2006. I started advocating because my chronic pain journey was long and hard, yet my story was by no means original. What happened to me was happening to far too many others. We were being ignored by the medical system and had lost our voices. 

I decided that it was time to get my voice back. 

I first started advocating for myself with my own providers, then started going to doctor’s appointments with other patients, followed by peer-to-peer mentoring of other patients and attending health events. Within a few years I was being asked to be the patient representative at many conferences. 

I didn’t start using social media until 2009. Doing so opened up a whole new set of ways to advocate. I began connecting with people all over the United States and the world. In 2010, I was invited to testify at a Defense Department hearing in Washington, DC and also at the Arizona legislature. 

I had patients attack me on social media for not being sick enough. Well, they haven’t seen me at my worst! What they saw was the branding and marketing image of me, which puts an emphasis on positivity. 

I recently watched an argument on social media over how much advocacy costs. There were two sides to the argument. On one side were those who think advocacy should be free and that it costs nothing. The other side was saying that money is needed to fund advocacy work and that people should donate to pain organizations who do it for them. 

If you asked me during my first 5 years of advocacy, I would have said it is free to be an advocate. But over the past 7 years I’ve learned that there are many hidden costs outside of the time you volunteer. 

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As an advocate who makes phone calls, your monthly phone bill would be a minimum of $25 for each phone line per month, plus another $20 for unlimited long distance. For online advocacy, internet service fees would be about $45 monthly. That’s not counting the cost of a computer, printer, telephone, office space, supplies, newsletters, etc.

Whether you are going for in-person advocacy or mailing letters, you need to take the time to research the issues and work on prep materials. That may take 10 to 20 hours per issue. If you are lucky enough to be paid for your time ($15/hour is the proposed national minimum wage), that would be a minimum salary of $150. 

Traveling to your state capital could cost a tank of gas, plus your time. That is not much. But to go to meetings in Washington, DC – as dozens of advocates recently did to attend an FDA hearing -- you will need to pay for your flight, hotel, meals and ground transportation.  

When someone like myself is paying for most of these costs privately, it adds up to tens of thousands of dollars a year. Can you do it for less? Yes, but then you are getting less out of your advocacy work and it is going to be harder to make a difference. 

We do need individual patients to write letters, make phone calls and call for change. But to say that there is no cost involved is really not accurate at all. There are many other costs, like writing social media content, pamphlets, resource materials, business cards, etc. that should be taken into consideration.

Just recently Don't Punish Pain rallies were held across the country. The campaign is said to have begun with one woman and a stack of index cards, but that doesn’t factor in all the other costs of signs, banners, telephone calls, and posting on social media, or the hundreds of people who volunteered their time to organize and attend the rallies. 

Advocacy costs at all levels. Recently I heard from a patient who was on workers compensation, who lost her provider and medical care because she was so involved in advocacy they thought she had a job. 

There are millions of dollars involved in advocacy and the work takes time, effort, heart and care. Please know that I am glad for all advocates and the help that comes from any efforts they make. We are not thanked a lot. 

I send out big thank you notes to everyone who has sent an email, made a phone call, testified in person, attended a doctor’s appointment with another patient, and made a difference for even one other person. Whether you are paid for your advocacy work or not, it has value and it does at minimum cost us energy pennies! 

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Barby Ingle lives with reflex sympathetic dystrophy (RSD), migralepsy and endometriosis. Barby is a chronic pain educator, patient advocate, and president of the International Pain Foundation. She is also a motivational speaker and best-selling author on pain topics. More information about Barby can be found at her website.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.