As a medical student, my lens of focus is very sharp. My interests are in things that allow me to do well in coursework, achieve necessary scores on exams, and networking towards my desired medical career. On Friday March 15, I, along with medical students around the country, found out which residency programs we would be heading to for the next 1-7 years of our careers and in very few of those programs do we learn how to navigate the health policy and advocacy landscape of America. I am one of two medical students currently in my school’s Health Policy and Advocacy elective, our only curricular opportunity to delve so deeply into this content.
I had previously been to the Georgia Capitol building, fondly referred to as the “Dome,” for a physician advocacy day in February of 2017. This is where a coalition of primary care physicians from Internal medicine, Pediatrics, Obstetrics and Gynecology, and Family Medicine approach the Capitol and their legislators with discussion points around particular bills of interest. These last 4 weeks, in a partnership with the Arc Georgia, I have been to the Capitol and surrounding buildings approximately 10-12 times. The Arc Georgia is a policy and programming organization that advocates for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. My first day at the capitol was memorable, receiving instructions on how to contact my legislator, the hustle and purpose that lobbyists and community members were walking with. There was a lot of discussion and business being addressed but to me, it was a lot of buzz. I did not belong in this arena, mainly because of my lack of knowledge, or so I thought.
There are three main things I learned from four weeks on this rotation and will attempt to share with you;
1) How approaching legislation in an organized group can be influential.
2) How to access local legislators.
3) Various opportunities for one to communicate perspectives on legislature.
If you haven’t been to an Advocacy Day of an organization or movement that you have an interest in, I highly recommend you seek out such an experience. It is truly where the rubber meets the road and community persons can be empowered by organizations to make their voices heard. An Advocacy Day will be sponsored by an organization and schedule to meet on a morning of the legislative session. They feed you breakfast which is always a blessing when you arrive at 8-9am. There is time for meeting and greeting and this is where you note the variety of experience in the room. From people who frequent the Capitol and know legislators on a first name basis to people who were invited by other first time participants. The organization provides you with instruction on the days’ legislative agenda and a crash course in finding and talking to your legislators. This makes for an adrenaline filled walk over to the Capitol afterwards. The beauty of the Advocacy Day is that when you walk into the “Dome”, you are walking in with support.
You may have heard the term “Working the ropes.” This is not an event seen only on television, it’s a practice that occurs right in downtown Atlanta on Washington Street. This is where we have the opportunity to summon our legislators out of chambers for a directed conversation for about two minutes. Elevator speeches comes in handy a great deal. Legislators are working for us and they show it by taking time out of their chamber discussions to meet with us. Our duty is to have specific and compelling points to relay to them. If you don’t get to meet them at the ropes there are other means by which to get in contact. Your legislators are accessible by email, or setting an individual meeting in their office. Legislators are also involved in separate committees, where bills are discussed in a more intimate setting.
These committee meetings contain bill discussions and critical questions about bill details. The agenda for these meetings is easily accessed on the Georgia General Assembly website. With that in hand, you can attend the meeting yourself and sign in to speak about your views on the bill. I have learned that change in legislature not only takes relationships amongst decision makers, but informed and active involvement by community members, professionals, and laypeople can also provide significant impact. Our legislators are more accessible than we think, we just need to be aware of the tools to use to do so.
I have been challenged to look at healthcare from a big picture perspective as opposed to individual disease processes and that challenge is very important. The laws that determine how and what kind of care we physicians can provide are made right down town on Washington Street, two blocks away from the main hospital for my medical training. I have learned how accessible my decision makers are and how to go about building that important relationship. The tools gained on this rotation were experiential and will not soon be forgotten. As I move forward in my surgical career I plan to help keep my colleagues informed on strategies to not only discuss new policies but to impact them with our actions.
Omari HS Christie
MD | Class of 2019
Morehouse School of Medicine
2019-2020 General Surgery Intern, Zucker School of Medicine
Long Island Jewish Medical Center/Northshore University Hospital