5 ways young physicians can advocate for themselves

Why don’t doctors advocate for themselves? Or young doctors, at least. Maybe it’s because we’re bombarded with patient care, never ending-educational opportunities or the mountain of electronic medical records that still need signed.

Maybe it’s because it’s too overwhelming. Understanding and conquering the health care behemoth that organizations, third-party payers, and the government have created seems nearly impossible if you’re not already on your way to adding a master of health care administration to your CV. Maybe it’s because any spare time you have away from work, you’d rather be spending with friends, with family or with your dog.

I was lucky enough to be pulled to my first organized medicine meeting as a medical student. I have to admit; I was a little skeptical at first. Who were these young faces, debating an infinite list of health care topics, formulating ideas and arguing we as physicians (and physicians-to-be) should march up Capitol Hill and demand policy change from our elected officials?

And who were these old, Caucasian, white-haired men everywhere? The meeting seemed to be a sea of homogeneity, sprinkled every so often with a young, bright, rhytid-free face.

It was as though the AARP meeting had let out early and they’d all wandered into this meeting. But wait … they seemed to really know what was going on. Then it hit me — these are all retired physicians that actually have time to come to meetings like this. They certainly had opinions, had innovative ideas and had thought-provoking experiences that added to each discussion. It became clear there was a wealth of knowledge to be gained here.

Over the past several years, I’ve become more attracted to the advocacy scene. Not because it’s always easy or convenient, but because I’ve felt I was needed. My young and innovative outlook on issues is critical when it comes to analyzing an issue, formulating solutions and advocating for change.

Health care’s rate of change is logarithmic, and it’s critical to have young providers present and engaged. We, as the nation’s young health care workforce, are invaluable in these discussions. We see things differently than our older mentors, have distinct technological skill sets, connect with our patients in a different way and are going to be more heavily affected by the outcomes of such conversations and agreements. Our diverse representation, across varying genders, races, ages, upbringings, religions and political stances will undoubtedly yield strong and thoughtful legislation for the future care of our patients.

Here are five easy steps for the youth of medicine, medical students, residents and fellows and young physicians, to become more involved:

1. Find a mentor. Becoming an advocate for yourself, your colleagues, your profession, and your patients is a heck of a lot easier if you have someone to show you the ropes. Many of your current mentors already have some experience in organized medicine and advocacy, you just have to ask them about their experience and involvement. Ask them who their mentors were, why they became involved, what they’ve learned and what they foresee as some of the more critical issues facing health care providers and patients today. Ask them to help you approach your institutional leadership with a proposed policy change. Collaborate with them on review of bills slotted for votes in the upcoming legislative session. Thank them for introducing you to a specialty society meeting. Utilize them and you’ll both gain from the relationship.

2. Be confident, reserving a willingness to listen and learn. Confidence is key to efficacy. You don’t know everything about a patient, their clinical course or future outcome when you’re seeing them for the first time in your clinic. It’s the same with advocacy. Dive in, ask questions, read, ask more questions and start generating ideas about how to tackle a specific issue.

Collaborate with hospital administration, local policymakers, and specialty organizations, just as you would with consultants in a hospital setting. Portray yourself as confident and passionate, while listening to their take on the topic and work alongside them to generate innovation.

3. Define what you’re passionate about. Get a taste for local, national and international issues. Let yourself be drawn to what interests you most. Whether it’s serving on a quality improvement committee at your hospital, enlisting as the physician of the day at your state capitol or volunteering for an international medical mission. Find what empowers you and gives you a sense of meaning and accomplishment.

4. Spread the word to colleagues. You aren’t only advocating for yourself; you’re also advocating for your peers. Inquire about their experiences and opinions, brainstorm with them. Invite them to your next committee meeting, networking event or national convention. They’ll naturally become interested as curiosity is innate to most personalities who’ve pursued a career in medicine. Galvanize your new team into action.

5. Enjoy the ride. Life’s too short not to enjoy what you’re doing. Admittedly, not every day is a walk in the park, but I’m sure most of us are excited and energized when presented with a complex patient, difficult diagnostic or opportunity to grow as a clinician.

Becoming more active in health care advocacy helps add fuel to the energy fire. Young physicians who are involved are excited about influencing the landscape of health care and passionate about improving the field of medicine, both for themselves and their patients.

We are the frontline providers and the future of health care. We have an idea of what’s best for patients, more so than administrators and politicians. Let’s insert ourselves into the conversation and continue to advocate for ourselves, our profession, and our patients. What we do today can change the course of medicine.

Lauren A. Umstattd is an otolaryngology resident.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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