I recently read a tweet where a physician claimed that physicians know nothing about health policy. Many chimed in in agreement but I, a member of several grassroots physician organizations trying to affect health policy, immediately took offense, though I really didn’t have a great counter argument. The truth is physicians do not really learn much about health policy in medical school and training. Frankly, most of our time is spent learning the practice of medicine and trying to survive it all. In my second year of medical school I was required to develop a health policy project. I recall being excited to delve into my project but admittedly didn’t really understand how a project I designed could actually become health policy. I believed doctors were the idea generators and the real policy makers, whoever they were, would just hear our ideas and use them to make changes for our community. The problem with this project was that there were no actual policy makers advising us or even listening to our presentations. I didn’t walk away from that exercise thinking I could become a policy maker nor did I learn how to interact with legislators in a manner that would lead to real changes.
Proceeding to training and then practice, I had this feeling of impotence seeing so much preventable disease without the knowledge of how to fix it. Our local and federal policy makers were failing us. Once I began complaining in physician groups on social media, I connected with physicians who were actively advocating for changes in health policy. I learned that we can be policy makers because the people actually caring for the patients know a great deal more about actual medical and nursing care than the legislators, most of whom are lawyers and business people. Legislators want to hear our ideas and will make time to hear us. I even learned that physicians can write white papers and bills. However, individual lobbying is the simplest form of advocacy and a great place to start. You can begin by engaging in polite conversation on social media with law makers, but here are some tips to get you started sharing your voice more formally.
Meet your legislators:
- Contact your state and US legislators. You can go to your state government website or https://www.senate.gov or http://congress.gov to find contact information. Call or email them and introduce yourself and offer yourself as a resource.
- Find out what the legislator is interested in. Your representative may not sit on any health committees but you can connect with any legislator who does. State health committees have different names. The main US congressional committees are the House Ways and Means Committee, House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. The members of these committees are listed on public websites.
- You will only have 10-15 at a time in an initial meeting so you want it to be brief and impactful. Have a conversation. Share a patient story. Stories are relatable and impactful. Don’t share a lot of statistics or studies. Don’t lecture.
- If you get to meet in person, get a photo of you with your legislator or their aide. Post photos on social media and tag the legislator. It reminds them who you are and gets them exposure.
Participate in calls to action:
- When you want to give your opinion on proposed legislation, make a phone call or send an email.
- Keep track of legislation on medical topics. Some state websites have free bill trackers by email set up. There are other bill tracking websites and firms that charge a fee.
- Calls and emails should be brief. “I am a physician or medical student and I OPPOSE or SUPPORT house or senate bill number 123.” They don’t have time to read long messages and phone calls are counted yay or nay.
- It’s best to email legislators singularly without form letters. However, if you do decide to message multiple legislators at a time, make sure to blind copy everyone. Address legislators formally using their titles.
Testify at hearings:
- Public hearings on proposed legislation are held by committees. If you can testify publicly this is a great way to interact with all of the members of the committee at once.
- You will only be given a few minutes so prepare a statement. Know the legislation and the counter arguments to your position. Again, sharing a patient story or encouraging a patient to come with you is the most impactful. Make it conversational.
- Be prepared to answer questions. If you don’t know the answer. Offer to find out for them.
- Clear your schedule for the day. Hearings can last several hours.
If you are one of those physicians complaining amongst your colleagues on and off of social media and think you cannot exact change in health policy, I invite you to start lobbying. Who knows how you’ll do, but you can’t be great at it if you never start.Tweet