The (Former) Patient Mentor

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The (Former) Patient Mentor

Survivors can provide empathy and resources

By Working NurseThe
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As nurses, compassion is one of our basic job skills, but empathy can be more difficult to achieve. Unless we’ve directly experienced a particular condition or course of treatment, we can’t fully appreciate the personal and emotional challenges it may entail for patients.   

Luckily, there is a useful intermediary for providers and patients: the patient mentor.

The Personal Touch

We often think of mentoring in the context of professional development, but mentors can also provide useful guidance in many other areas, such as recovery from addiction or alcoholism.

Patient mentors — former patients and survivors who support current patients and their families through diagnosis and treatment — are nothing new. Former patients have volunteered for such mentorship roles for many years. Some organizations have established ongoing patient mentorship programs, such as the American Cancer Society’s long-running Reach To Recovery program for breast cancer patients or the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation’s Peer & Family Support Program.

As Laura Leandro recently reported in the Wall Street Journal, patient mentorship and peer support programs are increasing in popularity. Leandro notes that more hospitals and organizations are realizing that mentors can be a useful resource for providers as well as patients, providing a level of personalized attention and emotional support that doctors and nurses may not have time to offer.

Mentorship Training

As patient mentorship programs become more common, they are also becoming more formalized, providing training for mentors in what to say — and what not to say — in response to patient concerns. In particular, mentors are trained to avoid offering medical advice, both for liability reasons and to ensure that mentors don’t undermine the work of the care team.

Although mentor training and oversight may require some staff time, mentors themselves are usually volunteers, so these programs are relatively cheap to offer. Some mentorship programs, such as the one offered by the Pulmonary Hypertension Association, are now primarily email- or text-based, which also affords great flexibility for mentors and patients.

Several nonprofit organizations are now offering or currently developing training resources for patient mentorship/peer support programs. The American Academy of Family Physicians Foundation has launched a program called Peers for Progress ( to provide information and best practices for mentor training.

The nonprofit Institute for patient and family centered care (IPFCC) periodically offers a webinar on designing peer support programs for patients and families; check the schedule at for more information.

The IPFCC is also gathering resources, information and links for a new peer mentoring section of the organization’s website,, slated to launch later this year. 

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