The power of student advocacy

SPM: American Medical Student Association

It was my first time in Washington, DC, and I was holding up a picket sign—definitely something that I had not envisioned for myself at the beginning of that week.

It was 2006 and I was a first-year pre-medical student. I was in town to attend my first American Medical Student Association (AMSA) National Convention and I didn’t really know what to expect. I decided to attend this convention after realizing that I wanted more than a typical science-based, pre-medical education.

Organic chemistry and physics are fundamental to our knowledge base, but they do not really teach you about the patient experience or what it means to be a compassionate health care provider. So there I was, on the steps of Capitol Hill with a chill in the air, attending my first rally and lobby day.

You do have a say

AMSA members at the grassroots.

There were hundreds of other students in attendance and I was so energized by the feeling that I was actually doing something for health care. The State Children’s Health Insurance Program was up for re-authorization and our rally focused on the narrative of the families that were supported by this program. We called on the legislature to remember their commitment to the nation’s most vulnerable patients and to urge them to act in favor of this re-authorization. Weeks later, we learned that this initiative passed with classmates to voice your opinions and create a dialogue.

The time is now

The era of the interdisciplinary team is here. In clinics and inside of the hospital units, team-based approaches have proven to be very effective for patient care. As these approaches are successful inside of the health care system, I in large part due to the student voices that had descended on Capitol Hill. This experience is something that has become intertwined with my vision of what a health care provider should be and changed the way that I will practice medicine in the future.

The realization that students can have an impact on health policy and the decisions that are made is a powerful one. Health care is a constantly evolving. It oftentimes seems like such an unstoppable force that students can sometimes feel that they can’t make a difference. The truth is that legislators are actually very interested in what students have to say. Students are seen as unencumbered by the influences of industry and their opinions are therefore seen as genuine. Just look at student pharmacists’ impact on the profession’s quest for provider status.

If you are still burdened by textbooks and have not thought about being an advocate, I encourage you to get out of your comfort zone and learn about pressing issues that you are sure to face in practice. The thought of actually attending a rally and lobby day can seem very daunting, but there are ways to start small. Research the issues and call up a senator or congressional representative and let them know what matters to you as a student and why. Make trips to your state capitol believe there should be a focus on interdisciplinary teams in the health policy arena as well. Students really do have the power to change the health care system, but work is sometimes done in silos, with individuals deciding on their own what topics they feel are the most pertinent and timely. What if different student organizations started collaborating on a regular basis about the most pressing issues?

I believe student voices collectively will have a much larger impact that any one group could have on its own. Students cannot and should not stand for changes being made to the detriment of their education and future patients without their input. Being a student is a wonderful time to learn how to make a difference and I look forward to working with my fellow health care provider colleagues to make effective change.