We must be “brave, brave, brave,” as we exhaust and challenge ourselves to reconcile the disparities that exist in our country. These words, delivered by keynote speaker Bryan Stevenson at the 2013 Teaching and Leadership Development Summit, inspire me as I continue on my mission to help break down barriers that give rise to health challenges in our nation. Towards this end, I strongly believe we need to build a robust army of physician advocates to serve as conduits between our most vulnerable patients and our policymakers.
Since entering medical school, I have relentlessly pursued opportunities to become a staunch physician-in-training advocate. My first opportunity arose last year, when a dear college friend asked me to join the Doctors for America efforts to confirm the nominee for U.S. Surgeon General — Dr. Vivek Murthy. On our lobby day, I suited up and reviewed key talking points. After completing my morning classes (yes, med school goes on), I took the Metro to Capitol Hill. Upon arriving on the Hill and passing through security, I was awestruck by the grand and patriotic halls that surrounded me. I stood amidst our nation’s primary lawmaking body and realized that I would soon be contributing to it.
Upon entering the offices, we each spoke about our backgrounds and the purpose of our visit. As the only medical student in the group, I realized that I represented not only myself but also the health care community at large. I stressed that this confirmation was an issue of health care, not of politics, and urged the staffers to ask our legislators to confirm Dr. Murthy. The strength and numbers of our group as well as our closing “ask” helped impress upon them how much we cared about this issue. Walking off of the Hill that day, I was amazed by my ability as an aspiring physician to help determine the leadership that would influence our nation’s public health. I gained even more confidence in the power of this advocacy when our efforts paid off, and the Senate confirmed Dr. Murthy as the 19th U.S. Surgeon General.
With this confidence, I pursued a similar lobbying opportunity during American Medical Association’s (AMA) Medical Student Advocacy Day. Although I knew my way around the Hill better this time, I found it just as wondrous. During meetings with Senate and House senior staff, we urged them to ask our legislators to support policies that would increase graduate medical education (GME) slots and student loan forgiveness. I weaved in the stories of my medical journey to illustrate the significance of these particular issues, and noticed that the staffers appreciated hearing about my experiences. They also took the time to share their own relevant experiences. One staffer even requested follow-up information, which reassured me that they took our “ask” seriously. These conversations reinforced my belief that medical students have great potential to mold policies that govern our nation’s health care.
Additionally, during our intersession, my classmates and I had the chance to become involved with physician advocacy in yet another way. We developed an innovative policy proposal to expand HIV screening and diagnosis in DC. On the final day, we traveled to the White House, where my teammates and I presented our proposal and took questions from a panel of HIV/AIDS policy experts. It was inspiring to work with a group of physicians-in-training to create original policies and collaborate with the president’s right-hand experts. Together, we helped tackle important national health care challenges.
All of these experiences have affirmed my passion for physician advocacy. As aspiring medical professionals, we are in the greatest position of all to communicate the needs of our most vulnerable patients to our lawmakers. Despite the struggles and the harsh realities we may encounter, we must believe that our voices matter and that unprecedented change is possible. Moving forward, I “ask” that my fellow physicians-in-training join our ranks of advocates. I know that you are “brave, brave, brave” enough to answer the call.
Janani Raveendran is a medical student.