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Like Guatemala, Like Chicago

A medical mission reinforces the need for change at home, no matter how slow or laden with red tape By Kavita Shah, MD

I just returned from a weeklong medical mission to Guatemala as part of the organization Faith in Practice. This was my first medical trip overseas, and I truly enjoyed beingpart of it. It was wonderful to see people in the health care field from different religious backgrounds and with varied experience coming together to help the underserved. Knowing that all members of the group had a connection to Chicago was an added bonus. The group included surgeons, anesthesiologists, residents, CRNAs, nurses and nurse practitioners, scrub techs, translators, a pharmacist, and a pastor.

The week was packed with general and gynecologic surgeries as well as many clinic appointments. Patients had been waiting for weeks to see a doctor, often traveling great distances. The hope and gratitude in their eyes will be a memory I will always carry with me.

However, it also saddens me to realize that one doesn’t have to go oversees to see long lines of patients waiting after suffering from their problems for many years. Just as the average woman in Guatemala with uterine prolapse had waited 10-plus years before seeking care, the long lines and delays in care are familiar here in Chicago as well. It is commonplace to walk into emergency room waiting rooms and see patients waiting for hours or even days. The embarrassment, social stigma, and lack of health care access prompts patients here in Chicago to wait for years before seeking care.

We, as physicians, can continue to walk past these waiting rooms unscathed or we can take notice by looking into our patients’ eyes, recognizing the need, and taking action. And that is what organized medicine is all about. It is being willing to take a stand, to be part of the change. When it is all too easy to bury our heads in the sand and just complain about the state of health care in this country, joining and being active in organized medicine is making the conscientious decision to do something constructive.

Change may be slow, laden with red tape, and it may not always be the change you agree with. But the more you, and other people with your views, join the process, the faster the wheels turn and the more the change reflects your viewpoints. Ask any county, state, or national society member who has been active for a few years, and you will certainly hear how he or she played a role in changing health care policy.

For me, it is being part of the process that sets guidelines for practicing medicine ethically—always keeping our patients at the center of care. For others, it is medical education and the various new initiatives to modernize how we train our nation’s health care force. For still others, it is public health or malpractice insurance reform.

So I challenge you to be part of the change. Do not simply sit back and let the health care environment change around you, but instead have an active voice. In the process, you will make some great new friends, share amazing experiences, and know that you have helped shape policy that helps doctors help patients.

Dr. Shah is co-chair of the CMS Resident and Fellow Section.

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