Medical Students as Advocates for Change

At a time when demand for advocacy is high, opportunities for medical students to develop these skills is waning. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, advocating for those less fortunate is not just the duty of medical professionals’ but the correct action of any human being. 

With a long and deep rooted tradition in medicine, advocacy calls upon physicians to speak up on behalf of patients, the vulnerable and those in dire need of assistance. Due to the respect physicians have as leaders of society, and of the trust individuals have in the medical system, they are able to influence policies that benefit their patients and the healthcare system.

Therefore, as students-in-training, when given the opportunity to advocate for our patients, and positively affect interactions in medicine, these occasions ought to be seized particularly if we want to change the landscape of disparities and injustices that are rampant in America. By encouraging medical students to engage in advocacy efforts, the concept of physicians as advocates becomes a step closer to normalization as well as their humanity strengthened when engaging with the medical system outside of their usual role. 

Given the lack of awareness, or an unrealistic view of the difficulties, and interactions that prevent a successful physician-patient relationship, medical students need to be empowered with advocacy skills to create physicians who are capable of treating diverse populations such as refugees, the homeless, and other disadvantaged patient groups.

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, movements such as #Students_Against_COVID, Students vs Pandemics, and a Coronavirus Global Awareness Magazine have been born. These times of chaos have proved to be the fruit of innovation sprouted by the desire to serve and rise above obstacles. Besides these efforts, medical students seeing the need for personal protective equipment (PPE) created a Non-Profit Organization, MedSupply Drive which gathered medical students across America uniting in the collection of equipment required for professionals to protect themselves while serving on the front-lines. 

Other students passionate about advocacy have had to seek extra-curricular positions in the International Federation of Medical Students (IFMSA), American Medical Student Association (AMSA), American Medical Women’s Association (AMWA), Australian Medical Student Association (AMSA), Asian Medical Students Association International (AMSA International) and American Medical Association (AMA) to raise their voices for tangible and effective change. They have organized campaigns on the Affordable Care Act, MedVote, Global Gag Rule, contraception, and gun safety among others. The Global Health Committee, the AIDS Advocacy Network as well as numerous LGBT+ Communities have also met with senators and representatives to discuss important state and national bills affecting health care. 

In Canada, students have formed a coalition known as the Medical Student Response Team where they’ve created an app to efficiently distribute community support during the pandemic. Such responsibilities involve assistance at the homeless shelter, collecting grocery items for the elderly or virtual storytelling opportunities for children. Others have come up with ways to create ventilators for vulnerable populations in Yemen, Syria and Afghanistan. Medical students foreseeing the problems afflicting indigenous populations sought indigenous translators to translate COVID-19 related information into their local languages for dissemination and understanding in order to keep themselves safe.

As a result of the anti-black attitudes and of racism prevalent in our societies, students have stepped up to educate citizens through the sharing of books, websites and videos to learn more about the issues prevalent in society. Medical student, Malone Mukwenda from the United Kingdom took it upon himself to co-author a textbook, Mind the Gap, a clinical handbook of signs and symptoms in black and brown skin. This book was inspired by the lack of racial diversity in medicine as medical dermatology textbooks failed to adequately educate physicians on conditions affecting those of non-white skin. Other student initiatives have been propelled by the desire to fight the information epidemic where misinformation about COVID-19 has been spread across Latin America. Extremely dangerous and perpetrated by those taking advantage of peoples’ confusion, and fear, COVID Demystified, a group of senior undergraduate students, graduate students and early-career scientists from universities across North America have come together to bring research on COVID19 to the people. This stems from their desire to make science accessible to all, therefore the information presented in their posts are all from peer-reviewed, published studies in reputable journals. 

While support of experiential learning in advocacy is needed, much work is to be done if evidence-based advocacy training is to become readily accessible to current and future health professionals nationwide. Even though advocacy takes many forms, occurring at multiple levels of engagement such as individual, local and national, all are valuable. At an individual level for example, physicians advocate for timely diagnostic tests and regionally for groups of patients seeking funding from a health provider. At a system level, physicians advocate for activities to improve the overall health and well-being of populations and globally encourage international support for health related environmental protection. 

From letter writing, social media campaigns, to one on one discussions with authority figures, advocacy techniques and strategies may vary. When speaking publicly, physicians should be clear when their comments are made in a personal capacity or on behalf of a third party and while many physicians are skilled advocates, these abilities are not natural for all physicians. Most often, advocacy is then a learned skill developed over time .

As healthcare providers and leaders, physicians can help improve and sustain the health systems by approaching issues with transparency, professionalism and integrity. Through informed perspectives and the use of evidence-based facts to help persuade others, now more than ever will patients continue to look to their doctor as a trusted source for healthcare information and support. Consequently, advocacy efforts will only increase in importance as the rise in injustice, neglect and falling economies continue and although advocacy’s definition in healthcare is evolving, physicians may show leadership by remaining engaged, committed and seeking to advance their viewpoints in a professional appropriate manner; for then only may they truly serve humanity before anything else. 

Written by,

Leah Sarah Peer