I entered medical school with an intense desire to take care of others. A naturally — sometimes overbearingly — caring person with a penchant for science, becoming a physician was my dream since middle school.
My naiveté was quickly slapped by reality when I realized people enter medicine for many other reasons: prestige, job stability, income or a genius fascination of science that sometimes overlooks the suffering human. This crushed my idealistic view of the world a little. I have since learned to celebrate everyone’s presence and instead focus on thriving in my ability to truly care for those around me. That’s the reason I pursued a career in medicine. Raised in a deferential culture, a hurdle of my personal journey has been learning to speak up — loudly — about the issues that break my heart or make me extremely upset. If I can do this, anyone else most definitely can.
First, there is no need to reinvent the wheel. There’s no need to sacrifice your precious time creating entirely new organizations when many successful and productive groups of organized medicine exist. The effectiveness of these groups is often enabled by their multidisciplinary membership, ranging from trained lobbyists and policy researchers to passionate patient storytellers. Join in where you are a unique expert — as a health care provider on the frontlines!
You will be pleasantly surprised at how powerful your voice is and how many people want to hear your opinions. Advocacy groups exist at every level from local and state to national, as well as by specialties or specific interests. Through local medical societies, I organize hands-on community service and local town halls.
Nationally, I recently attended the American College of Physicians (ACP) Leadership Day on Capitol Hill with a team of past and present ACP governors, residents, and fellow medical students. It was empowering enough to engage in conversation about issues from the opioid epidemic to chronic disease management with legislators; it was even more impactful to observe the experienced and well-versed physicians do so. This is real learning outside of the classroom.
Learning how to advocate on the ground with the health care policy makers of our country is invaluable. Regardless of what field of medicine I enter, I know with certainty that patient advocacy will be a large part of my future. No feeling compares to working for a purpose greater than yourself, and waking up every day to continue fighting.
Want more action? With 30 minutes of my life, a couple emails, printing scripts, a couple of enthusiastic friends and my phone, I was able to put together a lunchtime advocacy campaign at my school.
With the medical student-run organization Protect Our Patients, we distributed materials on representative office contact information — easy scripts for my classmates to call to speak out about their opinion on the recent health care reform initiatives and to share their own stories. Many colleagues shared with me that this was their first time calling a representative, and they never realized how easy it is. A classmate even shared print-outs of our local representatives’ phone numbers that we all now have on our fridges at home.
Anytime you are upset about an issue, you can call and have your opinion heard in a couple of minutes. The return of my 30 minutes was tenfold and has been one of the most rewarding experiences of medical school thus far. There is a reason I am here, and with a little nudge, I am reminded that those around me really do care, too.
Once you get started, you will not be able to stop. You find purpose and meaning amongst the chaos and anger around you. As a mentor once shared with me, “Once you see it, how can you ever look away?” Once you see unnecessary lives lost, the glaring inequality in our communities, how can you possibly do nothing?
Whatever stage of life you are in, it is never too late to step up and fulfill the true potential of your voice. If there is anything that you care about, I hope you raise this passion.
Live every moment, every conversation, as if there is a microphone under your tongue. Every word you utter, every behavior you endorse, is heard and seen by those around you and will perpetuate like water rippling across a pond. To conclude with words of one with far more wisdom than I, Muhammad Ali, “Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it.”
Charlene Gaw is a medical student.
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