A prescription for community health: The importance of advocacy in medicine

Tags: Christina Kelly, advocacy, TAFP rotation

By Lane J. Aiena, MD

As physicians we are tasked with the monumental privilege of helping people as our craft. We train for four years in our undergraduate education, four years in medical school, and an additional three years minimum in residency to be given this trust by our patients. From this education, we gain the ability to help the patient in front of us, but all too often we lose sight of our ability to help the community as a whole. As physicians we have the ability to treat not just the patient in front of us but the thousands of patients beyond our door that are affected every day by policy.

Recently I was able to do a rotation with TAFP in Austin. This rotation was set up after several advocacy trips to Washington D.C. piqued my interest in policy. I was fortunate to match to a residency, Conroe Family Medicine Residency, that is very active both in its community and at the national level. The main takeaway from my first trip was this: everyone in politics has an ask, but stories are what stick. Simply talking about what we do on a daily basis can be a huge vehicle for change. I wanted a way to learn how to more effectively “get my story out there,” and this rotation was the perfect way to do just that.

In Austin my primary goal was to become more familiar with “how things work.” I had a general idea, but still felt very naïve to the overall process. I was able to see firsthand the committee meetings where bills have their first potential life, saw lobbyists delivering messages to influence change, and met staffers, representatives, and senators. I had the privilege of speaking one on one with the representative of my future hometown of Huntsville. I had breakfast with Dr. J.D. Sheffield, representative of House District 59 who is also a family physician. I spent a day getting advice from the Capitol’s Physician of the Day and 2001 TAFP Physician of the Year, Dr. Donald Niño. I read and reviewed bills, participated in meetings, and learned how to be effective at advocacy for my patients.

Health care has become one of the biggest political topics of our time and as physicians, it is our duty to shape policy in the most appropriate way we can discern. After all, we are the experts, right? In Austin I learned just how best to turn my stories and ideas into policy. Physicians are community leaders and policy makers want to know what we think. Try to establish relationships with these representatives. It helps them just as much to know a leader in their constituents’ community as it does for you to know a policy maker. Host events in your area, give back, and always be ready for an opportunity to speak at the Capitol. Like Sam Rayburn said, “Readiness for opportunity makes for success. Opportunity often comes by accident; readiness never does.”

In our offices we help around 20 to 24 people a day. Imagine being able to help thousands with a single conversation or a single story. We work countless hours; we endured a rigorous education that had little to nothing to do with politics. Keeping up with policy issues often has to take a back seat to keeping up with the latest articles and recommendations in the medical journals. That being said, it is our duty to be up to date on these policy issues, too. We owe it to our communities to be the leaders they look to us to be. Stay knowledgeable, get active, and make your opinion heard. Your stories matter and they may just be what influence policy.

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