The risks of being a physician advocate

As a future doctor, I believe that digital dialogue affords medicine a powerful responsibility to educate and engage. I believe physicians have a responsibility, as daily witnesses to the gaps and failures of public policy, to advocate for social justice and policy reform. I believe that medicine should extend beyond the proximate effects of illness and injury to address their root social etiologies.

I’ve always held these beliefs with firm conviction. I’ve always been passionate that the doctor’s role transcends the walls of the clinic and optimistic that the public physician holds the keys to better health and better care. Until now.

The NRA’s uproar surrounding Vivek Murthy’s confirmation as surgeon general brings to the forefront the risks of being a physician advocate. Public communication can engage patients, inform popular debate, and shape policy. Unfortunately, it can also draw attention, incite controversy, and alienate others, raising challenges that represent untested waters for the rigidly hierarchical, ‘keep-your-head-down’ culture of medicine.

It’s easy to be intimidated by stories like Dr. Murthy’s. To any student or young physician, the lesson is obvious: Shut up and stay in line, or face the risks.

No wonder so many physicians avoid the spotlight. Today, it’s the NRA discrediting Vivek Murthy for taking a stance on gun control. Tomorrow, it could well be a patient who disagrees with my views on abortion. Or a residency director who takes offense at my blogging on the Affordable Care Act. Or a hospital administrator who dislikes my tweets on abortion rights.

If medical students are concerned about communicating publicly, they have every right to be.

Do I value candor and integrity as an aspiring physician? Absolutely. But are those values worth the costs of alienating a patient, a residency director, or the powers that be who might impede my professional goals?

For the first time, I’m not so sure.

Amol Utrankar is a pre-medical student who blogs at Slackadem.

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