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Reclaiming Our Role as Patient Advocates

CMS provides the vehicle to help patients beyond the confines of our medical offices
By Sameer Vohra, MD, JD

I have become increasingly captivated by the HBO show Last Week Tonight. The comedian John Oliver devotes a 10- to 15-minute segment each week to an issue that deserves advocacy. Over the past month, he discussed patent trolls, the problems of standardized testing, and even the plight of chicken farmers. On Mother’s Day, Mr. Oliver used his platform to advocate for paid parental leave in the United States, a limitation our country shares only with Papua New Guinea and Oman. I finished the show that week inspired but also a little troubled, wondering if we physicians do enough to advocate for our patients outside the clinic or hospital. Mr. Oliver uses his show to hold industry, politicians, and his viewers accountable to ensure a voice is given to the voiceless. The sad part is that our profession does not always do the same.

We often hear romanticizing about the “old school family doc.” The belief that our current medical system, with its increased specialization, innovative diagnostic and surgical tools, and organized division of labor, is not superior to previous eras of medicine is not accurate. However, our new system does have limitations, and the biggest drawback may be that physicians are not the advocates they once were.

Crusaders of the Past

Physicians used to live in the communities where they worked. The issues that affected their patients also affected their spouses, kids, and themselves. This connection resulted in a unique bond between physician and patient, allowing doctors to use their position in society to encourage both individual and collective social good. My mentors, a few of whom are active members of the Chicago Medical Society, often speak of their personal crusades to improve life for their patients. One physician worked tirelessly to change industry standards on microwaves that were burning his pediatric patients. Another doctor worked to make her hometown restaurants smoke-free to help decrease her growing population of lung cancer patients. These physicians were advocates.

I cannot escape the feeling that this same drive for physician advocacy is deteriorating. My generation of physicians no longer feels that advocacy is possible. It starts with the fact that we often do not live in the same communities as our patients. We work for large hospitals or physician group systems with clinics in various sites with different populations. My generation must work evenings and some weekends, leaving little time for much outside of work and home. We still care and want to make an impact. Many of us are searching for energy and a way to reclaim our role as patient advocates.

A Concrete Plan for the Future

My first Young Physicians’ Perspective column was devoted to “The Continued Relevance of Organized Medicine.” I argued that medical societies such as the Chicago Medical Society (CMS) are important because they provide a unified voice for issues important to physicians. I continue to believe strongly in this statement, but wonder if we provide the tools and resources to channel that unified voice in the right ways. Can our medical society and others like it bring forward a new era of patient advocacy led physicians? I think we need to try.

CMS should spend the next year learning how members want to make the lives of patients better. While continuing to concentrate on physician-specific issues, CMS should broaden its brand by also making an investment in the health and wellness of Chicago’s patients. The information gleaned from surveys should be used to target issues both popular and pressing. Once the issues are discovered, CMS should build physician coalitions that work with community leaders, advocacy organizations, and local officials to help solve our city’s health problems. The end result should not be a resolution, but a concrete plan of action. CMS should build an energized, unified, and effective physician advocacy population.

I look forward to John Oliver continuing to advocate for the health of our country’s patients. However, he and other comedians should not have all the fun. Physicians should once again lead the charge to make this city and our collective communities healthy. This task is not easy, and it may take years to reignite the energy and determination needed to accomplish this feat. My generation of physicians is waiting for the right vehicle to channel our will to help patients beyond the confines of our medical offices. The Chicago Medical Society can and should lead the way.

Sameer Vohra, MD, JD, is a fourth-year resident physician in pediatrics and public policy at the University of Chicago/Comer Children’s Hospital. Dr. Vohra currently serves on the Chicago Medical Society Board of Trustees. He has previously served on the National Administrative Board for the Association of American Medical Colleges Organization of Student Representatives. In 2014, Dr. Vohra was a recipient of the AMA Foundation Excellence in Medicine Leadership Award.

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