Health policy has been circulating the news and social media now more than ever. It’s become one of the most important issues in politics and is sure to be featured in any political debate. It’s critical to understand how these policies may affect you as a potential patient, but it’s also important to understand how, as a doctor, these policies will affect your career, your work environment, and your patients. A physician’s role is to treat, diagnose, and care for patients – but if you’re truly committed to the well-being of our patients, “care” doesn’t stop when you prescribe medicines. It doesn’t stop once you redress their bandages or sew up their cut. Caring for patients can expand outside the hospital walls and into the rules and regulations that dictate how you operate and what kind of care your patients receive.
As a pre-med, medical student, or physician, you’re in a unique position. Your voice has the power to influence Congress because you are dealing with the results of the legislation every day.
Advocacy and Politics 101
The public support of an issue is termed advocacy. Advocacy is used to change, keep, or improve pieces of legislation. From a healthcare point of view, advocacy could mean fighting for your patient to receive treatment or for better residential work hours in your local hospital. Furthermore, you can urge Congress to change funding for a piece of legislation that will positively impact the patient population. Advocacy is a person-centered approach that can empower you and your community. This kind of public health activism can help change the legislation and rules so that they can better prevent disease and death.
There are many different forms of advocacy, but what ‘s important to understand is that you are engaging in activism for particular issues and are actively being involved in order to influence people about these issues. Congress.gov is a great website to research and track ongoing federal legislation. You can see if the legislation was introduced by the House or the Senate and in what stages the bill is at (e.g. what committee is it being referred to) or where the bill is in regards to being sent to the President. At any stage, Congress.gov is where you contact your representatives and share your thoughts on that piece of legislation. It is also important to understand that a lot of legislation or programs do or don’t get passed based on appropriations. (Basically, this is a committee that decides what money is allocated to what program or legislation). Take it upon yourself to look at funding for a particular program and all the specifics. Understanding how money influences programs can be key when trying to influence anyone on a particular program or issue.
Pro-Tip: Use personal stories. Anecdotes of your experiences show representatives the real impact legislation has on the medical community, good or bad. Remember these tips are important at each level: local, state, and federal.
Why and How to Advocate
How can your voice be so important? And why should you add even more to your already-full plate? Advocacy from all health professionals isn’t just important, it’s imperative because all rules, regulations, disparities, and injustices are at their heart, political issues.
Let’s look at the ongoing Opioid Crisis in America. Here are examples of advocacy that demonstrate the important issues at stake that you have an influence on.
- To start, you can look up your representative, call them, and share why it is important that they are involved and co-sponsor a bill.
- An even bigger step is educating yourself and others. Look in your state and see what programs/preventions are out there. For example, find out the waiver process for physicians and if they are allowing medical students to obtain a waiver before they practice. Waivers allow physicians (or other prescribing professionals) to prescribe drugs that help combat opioid addiction. However, there are limits to waivers and not every physician has one. Urge your local hospital, medical school, and colleagues to obtain more waivers. Write a “Letter to the Editor” explaining why increasing waivers are important OR why waivers may not be actually necessary and can be harmful in protecting against the opioid crisis.
- Advocate for Medicaid expansion which may increase the number of services and prescriptions of Buphrenophine -a drug that combats opioid addiction. Locally promote the increase of grants and clinics that take in and treat individuals dealing with opioid addiction.
- Look at policies regarding Naloxone (a prescription drug that reverses opioid overdose). Is it a third party law, standing order, prescriber immunity, lay dispensing? I encourage you to research them and see what state your laws have. Standing order is usually the most effective way people can actually obtain Naloxone. Another way to take a stance is to get Naloxone yourself and learn how to use it. Anyone can obtain Naloxone, so encourage your friends and peers to look into it as well.
As future physicians, we may treat someone with opioid addiction, but because of systemic barriers, insurance, or policies, that person may fall through the cracks. Isn’t that incredibly frustrating?. None of us want to see patients unnecessarily suffer. To prevent this, we need to be taking action and advocating for our future patients so they can get better healthcare, such as starting with the opioid crisis.
How Advocacy Will Make You a Better Physician
Physicians care for patients in the most tangible and intimate ways. In order to encourage more physicians to use their voices and to advocate for issues, it is important to begin to understand why engaging in advocacy early and often is important.
As a medical student, you can begin to incorporate advocacy and health equity into your curriculum. Being able to engage and learn about pressing issues in the world and connecting them to your classes, or your rotations, will allow you to see the bigger picture of why advocacy is essential to be a well-rounded physician. You will be able to understand diseases on a different level and even your patient’s lifestyle choices or medical history. You will realize that someone’s chronic health issues can be the result of the lack of accessible healthy food or doctors’ offices in their rural community. You can change this. Advocate for this. Get others involved. This is exactly why advocacy as a medical student is so important. You can rally and advocate for change in the community to supply more doctors or healthy food options.
As a medical student, you probably also face the harsh reality of being in significant debt. Well, get involved and advocate for the student debt crisis! Advocate for anything you’re passionate about. Every issue can relate to a patients’ background and advocating for change is what we need in medical students. Activism will fire a passion within you to continue practicing medicine in a way you have never felt before. I promise you. Advocate for your past, present, and future patients.
Healthcare Advocacy Topics
Now you understand why engaging in advocacy and politics is so important as a medical student. You also learned some basic advocacy tools that will help your activism efforts, but what about topics? Maybe you’re not sure about present issues right now or want to get involved, but don’t know where to start. Well, that’s okay because any topic you’re passionate about is perfect! To jumpstart your activism efforts here are a few hot topics in the health policy world. Regardless of where you stand, you need to know about them and understand the debates from both aisles (Senate v. House; Republican v. Democrat).
- Opioid Crisis
- Reproductive Health
- Prescription Drug Pricing
- President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) as well as overall AIDS and TB issues
- Climate Change
- Gun Violence
- Social Determinants of Health
- Suicide/Mental Health
There is so much more than I listed. For example, I am passionate about disability advocacy and how it relates to health disparities. I have been involved in disability advocacy since I was 14. and continue to do advocacy efforts to this day. This list is meant to serve you if you’re stuck and want to get involved. Use the tools in the previous sections and a Google search to find more information on these topics. Then use the examples below to start advocating. Remember, all the examples of advocacy are great ways to get your feet wet, but to have efficient grassroots advocacy you need to educate and rally up people and try to have a permanent change in your community.
Examples of Advocacy
- Call or write a letter to your representative in the House, Congress or your state Senator. To get started, Google search “call-in scripts to representative/Congress” or “email scripts to representative/Congress”
- Write an Op-Ed in your local newspaper or a “Letter to the Editor”
- Start a petition
- Organize a protest, walk, or rally
- Conduct a legislative visit with your local, state, or federal representatives
- Look up tool-kits related to your area of interest
- Attend local briefings, hearings, or town halls about an issue and ask questions or say your opinion about the issue!
- Organize a PSA, publication, campaign, press conference, etc with your medical school to get your voices heard!
- Get your medical school involved in any issues! Getting people involved and passionate will result in real change to benefit the lives of our patients and us!
Pro-Tip: the more calls and letters a representative receives about a particular issue, the more the staff assistants and other members in their office relay that information to the representative. So get your medical school or a pre-med club to call in about the issue you want to advocate for!
We medical students have an influential voice that needs to be exercised in order to make our communities, our country, and quite frankly, the world a better place. I have seen first hand how having medical knowledge can influence representatives in their bills. I’ve attended legislative visits where healthcare professions used the power of personal medical stories to change the viewpoint of their representatives. Those same legislative visits went on to influence changes such as national limits on residential work hours. I also have worked in the Senate where I have been a part of researching and writing health policy legislation. In all of that experience, the most important thing I have learned is that we are in a unique position to help and it is our duty, as aspiring physicians, to do just that.