Advocacy Through the Family Medicine Lens

by Will Schott, MD

I’m a family medicine resident. I care for patients in clinics, hospitals, and emergency rooms. This past month I learned how to advocate as well. I want to use this space to show others in family medicine why we’re so well-poised to be advocates and how this can empower our profession. This article isn’t going to shy away from cliche, but rather embrace it, highlighting what family medicine can do for advocacy: not what your country can do for you, being the change we wish to see in the world…catching my drift yet?

So, as a second-year resident I’ve been through medical school and an intern year and gathered experiences and advice which ultimately led to this advocacy rotation, a chance to learn about legislation and why when I was told in medical school that pediatrics and family medicine are the most involved specialties in advocacy that this can and should be the case. I hope that instead of rolling your eyes at the personal-statement-esque cliches I’ll draw from, you’ll instead see this as a chance to engage in a process that can do so much good for so many.

“You don’t know what you don’t know.” – A common sentiment in medical training, so let’s define advocacy: public support for or recommendation of a particular cause or policy. So, while that may sound scary, putting yourself and ideas and opinions out there, this is in fact what your training has been for. This is, in fact, how we as family medicine doctors can use our training to reach outside of the clinic walls and touch more and more patients. A common sentiment in family medicine is that we enjoy stories and sharing them and believe it or not that is the backbone of advocacy: finding a compelling way to fight for change is what we do every day. To finish off this point, until you look at your state legislature you won’t know what kind of policies may be hidden below the surface, good or bad.

Use your resources. Like any good training program, advocacy is no different, the goal of this article isn’t too turn you into a master lobbyist, it’s to give you the tools to take with you so that the excuses of I’m only in training, or I’ll probably move soon don’t have to hold you back. Copy/Paste this into your phone, now! HOW TO ADVOCATE: 1. Look up your legislators 2. Follow policy groups on social media 3. Find your passion in policy 4. Write a letter or post 5. Repeat.

Triage and picking battles is the next analogy. As we all know, the clinic patient with a problem list a mile long can make you shudder and exit out of your pre-charting faster than you’d care to admit. Similarly, lengthy lists of legislation can send you into a headspin too, but that’s where picking battles gains even more importance. So maybe you’re not going to turn your red state blue or vice versa overnight, but just like every flu shot and pap smear are small victories for otherwise complicated patients, starting with small battles can gain the trust of legislators. Moving the needle just a little for a tricky legislator can show them that you care and aren’t going away, just as it can inspire the trust of your patients. If you thought your stages of change model wouldn’t serve you past medical school, you’re sorely mistaken. 

Just like picking a medical specialty, working in advocacy is all about “finding your passion”. We’ve described a lot of the pieces and skills of advocacy above but these tools are most useful when pointed in the right direction, a direction you can get behind. The reality is you’ll be more effective fighting for something that lights your fire and you can truly get behind, e-mail after e-mail, long night after long night. For me those issues are sustainability and diversity; what are yours? I’m confident that our family medicine training and diverse backgrounds have created an extensive spread of causes, all worth fighting for. Just like I can’t and shouldn’t fight for them all, yours deserve to be fought for too. What a great way to remind yourself why you got into this field, by helping that cause at the same time.

“Our entire lives we’re advocates for something” was the sentiment my advocacy elective leader Maryann Martindale shared with me. And just like being lifelong advocates, we’re family medicine doctors because we love to be involved, from cradle to grave, and what better way than advocacy to do this in a meaningful way.

Dr. Schott was born (Neenah) and raised in Black Earth, WI. He headed west to complete his undergraduate degree in Health Promotion and Education at the University of Utah before going back home for medical school at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. His medical interests all center around caring for communities and families (cradle-to-grave intergenerational care) with specific interests in American Indian Health, Sports Medicine, and Geriatrics. He is also very interested in the One Health Project which is a “collaborative, multisectoral, and transdisciplinary approach—working at the local, regional, national, and global levels—with the goal of achieving optimal health outcomes recognizing the interconnection between people, animals, plants, and their shared environment.” When not in clinic he loves engaging his community in meaningful ways including youth education, sustainable food development, and improving access to outdoor recreation. He has trouble sitting still and has hobbies that range from skiing to mountain biking to bluegrass music to volleyball to watching soccer to playing the banjo to water skiing to traveling to yoga and hiking. He chose the University of Utah because he fell in love with the Wasatch and couldn’t think of a better place to live and train, surrounded by inspiring people and views with unique opportunities around every corner. He loves how connected the University of Utah is to the surrounding valley and state and hopes to take advantage of every opportunity from 4th street clinic in downtown SLC to rural clinics across the beautiful state.

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