Spotlight: Women in Medicine

The Importance of Advocacy Training for Physicians

By: Emma Payne

In its Declaration of Professional Responsibility, the American Medical Association (AMA) declares that physicians have a responsibility to “advocate for social, economic, educational, and political changes that ameliorate suffering and contribute to human well-being.” Another perspective builds on this definition, and defines advocacy as, “action by a physician to promote those social, economic, educational, and political changes that ameliorate the suffering and threats to human health and well-being that he or she identifies through his or her professional work and expertise.”

The need for physician advocacy has become increasingly relevant, especially given the current political climate. Activism and advocacy are becoming strongly intertwined with the practice of medicine, and as one medical student, Dereck Paul, eloquently said, the wide range of issues facing our country today have increased medical students’ commitment to “decency, truth, diversity, and equity”:

Even training in the evidence-based practice of medicine, grounded though it is in the objective sciences, cannot escape being shaped by the tumultuous currents of our sociopolitical moment. A generation trains in the careful application of science to suffering within a context of resurgent white supremacy, anti-immigrant hatred, climate disasters, our most contentious public health epidemics, and attacks on the structures undergirding access to health care for millions. And for that, we will be changed.

One glaring example of this need for advocacy training is the recent restriction on abortion that is being passed in many U.S. states. While issues like abortion can cause deep divisions across religious and political lines, it seems reasonable that the regulation of the healthcare system should be done by those with the most expertise and knowledge of the subject at hand-- in this case, obstetricians and gynecologists, not senators.

Further, it makes sense for those most directly affected -- mainly women-- to advise on this regulation. In both of these respects, physicians who specialize in Obstetrics and Gynecology have both professional expertise and personal experience to add to this conversation. In fact, this specialty boasts the highest percentage of female residents: According to data from the AAMC, 4,334 (82.9%) of accredited residents and fellows in obstetrics and gynecology in 2017 were women. As such, physicians in this specialty are uniquely equipped to advise on this topic.

However, currently, regarding abortion and the significant health effects that may arise from restrictions, the obstetricians and gynecologists are not the ones calling the shots. In fact, in the case of Alabama’s recent abortion ban, this bill was voted to advance by a group of 25 all-male senators. With this example and many others nationwide, the need for physicians as advocates is now more important, than ever before. Therefore, providing physicians with advocacy training is crucial for allowing their expert opinions on patient care to be heard.

So, where are we now? In the realm of reproductive health care, there are indeed many fantastic advocacy groups working to protect patients’ rights to care, made up of physicians and other advocates of both genders, including the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG) and Physicians for Reproductive Health (PRH). However, there is much more work that still needs to be done.

Advocacy training is critical for all specialties, and as a result, this should begin during medical school, rather than being left to individual professional organizations. If advocacy training is incorporated into the curricula of medical schools and other health disciplines, then all doctors and medical personnel will become better equipped to speak up and advocate for the rights and welfare of their patients, regardless of the political climate. To help us make this a reality, see the action areas and resources below.

Take action:

  • If you are a medical student, resident, fellow or academic physician, encourage your medical school to provide advocacy training.

  • Check out the advocacy resources linked below to better equip yourself as an advocate.

  • Become involved in advocacy groups working on issues that are important to you, or create your own.

  • Remember that advocacy is very broad in scope; this can range from advocating for the care of a particular patient to pushing for legislative changes at the national level.

Advocacy Resources:

This is an original article of the 500 Women in Medicine, a satellite organization of 500 Women Scientists.

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