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Tuesday Feb 18, 2014

Advocacy Improves Community Health Far Beyond Exam Room

I have been involved in advocacy, in one form or another, since middle school: collecting money for the Jerry Lewis telethon, arranging a speaker for my high school class and working on teen pregnancy issues in residency. The issue that helped me fully understand the nuances of advocacy, however, was the death of a patient who was a victim of domestic violence.

Knowing that I wanted to help to change the health conversation, I asked myself, "Who else in the community has a stake in this issue, and what existing programs might need assistance?" Then I met with the local women's shelters to find out what they needed and how family physicians could connect women who need help from these resources. I also worked with law enforcement officials, educated myself and eventually figured out how to get things done.

Family physicians face a lot of challenges, including payment issues, new regulations, public health issues and more, but we don't always know how to fix the problem or create change in our communities.

As President of the Pennsylvania division of the American Cancer Society, I spoke during an event at the State Capitol. Our advocacy efforts helped the Clean Indoor Air Act become law in 2008.

It helps to be able to take our frustration with these various issues and turn them into opportunities for change and leadership. Getting involved in advocating on our issues can provide an opportunity to get off the daily routine hamster wheel and develop and use different skills. We are trained in family and community medicine, so engaging in pressing issues can be a great fit for our skills. Addressing and fixing these nagging problems can help us reenergize, improve our professional satisfaction and build our professional network.

Start by asking, "What am I passionate about?" "What issue is hurting my practice or affecting too many of my patients?" The basic process of identifying a problem, gathering stakeholders, setting goals, developing a communications plan and engaging the community can be applied to an array of public health issues. For example, when I was on the board of the Pennsylvania division of the American Cancer Society, a state senator had been working for years -- without success -- on a bill regarding clean indoor air.

This is where those different skills I mentioned kick in. In this effort, I was able to provide testimony in my state legislature and inform the public about the issue by working with the media. By networking, with persistence and professionalism, we were able to bring critical allies -- including the state restaurant association -- into the discussion. The addition of physician partners adds urgency and credibility to an issue. You can be that valued partner.

By pulling other physicians and medical organizations into the effort, we were able to provide powerful stories from patients whose health had been affected by smoking in public places. We were able to gather data related to the high medical costs associated with working in a smoke-filled environment. These two factors personalized the story and proved to policymakers and the public that this was a public health problem that needed to be rectified.

Finally, the Clean Indoor Air Act was signed into law in 2008, prohibiting smoking in public places and workplaces statewide.

For some, advocacy means stepping out of their comfort zone, or at least expanding it. Speaking in front of large groups can be nerve-racking, especially when cameras are rolling. But the results -- healthier communities and personal growth -- can be fantastic.

Our communities -- and our country -- need us, and not just in our practices. Being involved in these types of issues, whether locally or nationally, showcases who we are, what we do and the fact that primary care physicians are leaders in community health.

On April 7-8 in Washington, family physicians will have an opportunity to learn about advocacy at the Family Medicine Congressional Conference. Attendees will learn how to engage legislators and share stories from their practices in a way that can inspire change. I hope to see you there.

Wanda Filer, M.D., M.B.A., is a member of the AAFP Board of Directors.

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The opinions and views expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent or reflect the opinions and views of the American Academy of Family Physicians. This blog is not intended to provide medical, financial, or legal advice. All comments are moderated and will be removed if they violate our Terms of Use.