Terri Dreher

Editor’s Note: This is one of seven women entrepreneurs named to our Fearless #Over50 list

It wasn’t until Teri Dreher had to save her father-in-law’s life five times that she knew something was wrong — with the medical system.

In 2007, she was on a cruise to Belize with her family when her father-in-law had a “life-threatening catastrophe” and had to be hospitalized. “Long story short, we had to fly him back to the U.S. and over six weeks, it was one calamity after another,” she says. “I was just shocked at how many instances there were of poor communication and medical error and staff missing things because nobody was talking to each other.”

As an intensive-care-unit nurse for nearly 40 years, Dreher had seen her share of patient mishaps, but none of them had hit so close to home. After her family emergency, she resumed her job at a cancer treatment center in Zion, Illinois, but decided the bureaucratic system there was too much to bear. So, Dreher decided to make a change and signed up for a program in patient advocacy. “I just told my husband, ‘Nobody’s ever going to tell me not to advocate for a patient again. If this is what healthcare has come to, I don’t want to work in a hospital anymore.’”

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A Business is Born

In 2011, at age 56, Dreher started NShore Patient Advocates, a business based in Chicago that aims to keep the patient at the center of the healthcare system. Dreher and her team of six nurses care for patients as consultants, rather than medical practitioners. They might advocate for different treatment plans, inform patients of their rights, or dispute insurance billing statements. Dreher has even worked with a professional speaking coach to hone her public speaking skills because “when we’re in hospitals, we’re the big communicators.”

In 2018, NShore Patient Advocates billed over $600,000 and has been growing between 20 and 80 percent the last few years. Over the past eight years, Dreher estimates that “just by being there and asking the right questions,” she’s saved at least half a dozen people. Next year, Dreher hopes to generate annual revenue of $1 million, not to mention save many more lives.

She’s also written a book on patient advocacy in modern healthcare that details many of her run-ins with the medical system. According to Dreher, healthcare is made up mostly of “big systems” and “when you’re getting your paycheck by big health care systems, and you see something going wrong, it’s much less likely that you’re going to blow the whistle.”

Dreher considers her business to be the “middle man” between patients and doctors that “fills in the gaps.” As a longtime nurse, Dreher knows her way around the intricacies of the medical system. She says, “We can just walk in and enter the room and see probably 25 or 30 things that a family member would not see.”

The facts don’t lie — medical error remains the third leading cause of death in America, and Dreher points out that “there’s a 30 percent chance of people getting some kind of adverse medical outcome when they go in the hospital for healing.” As the David to healthcare’s Goliath, Dreher knows her work likely won’t influence any nation-wide policies, but she hopes to raise transparency in hospitals and minimize preventable mistakes. She blames the rush to “get the charting done” for many medical errors. “Marketing and money are more important than they ever have been before,” she says, adding that hospitals have changed from philanthropic to profit-driven. “I’m just doing what I can one patient at a time. And it’s really working.”

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No Patient Left Behind

Most of Dreher’s clientele are seniors, adults with disabilities, and those “slipping through the cracks” of healthcare.

One patient who’s extra special to Dreher is a middle-aged engineer who suffered a neck injury that turned him into a quadriplegic. His family moved him in and out of dozens of hospitals before reaching out to Dreher to advocate for a homecare option. Others may have seen just another patient entry in the database, but Dreher saw and empathized with his humanity. “When I met him, I saw this man that was just covered in these horrible rashes and scales and bedsores, just all kinds of tubes running in and out of him, but he had such a gentle look in his eyes.”

Dreher helped give him the best treatment — “home care, equipment, dressings, and everything.” When an infection saw him return to the hospital, Dreher attended an ethics committee to advocate on the patient’s behalf. “I handed them the medical profile and care plan, [and] told them he’s going to get much better care at home.” When confronted by a doctor about the fatal risks, Dreher retorted, “‘As far as patient rights go, if you think he’s going to die, doesn’t he have a right to die where he wants to die?’ And everybody just got real quiet. Then the head of the ethics committee stood up and shook my hand and said, ‘Okay, let’s get him home.’”

Recently, Dreher spearheaded the Annual Chicago Patient Advocacy Symposium, and with plans to spread the word about what she does, Dreher is mentoring about six nurse advocates around the country. This year, she is also holding her first International Conference on Patient Advocacy in Chicago to equip those in the medical field with the skills and knowledge to more effectively manage patient health.

“It’s a big comfort to families when a patient advocate is involved because they just get so scared and so emotional,” she says. “We care about patients as human beings and we viciously protect them, but we’re doing it with the added benefit of clinical experience and understanding how the healthcare system works.”

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