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Advocacy Day: Change You Can Be a Part Of

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What exciting times we are living in! While our country is facing serious financial and international uncertainty, we are seeing a renewed optimism in our government. And, for the first time in years, there is a growing interest in politics and political involvement.

Maybe you held or attended fundraisers during the election, proudly displayed the button or sticker of your preferred candidate or glued yourself to the array of debates and commentary. But your involvement doesn’t have to end just because the election is over. In fact, in many ways, political participation is more important than ever. This is the perfect time to jump into the political arena by attending the Mid-Year Forum and Congressional Advocacy Day.

The forum is a four-day conference held in Washington, D.C., that gives ophthalmologists the opportunity to discuss the political issues facing the profession. It encompasses a wide-range of events, including speaker presentations, Academy committee and secretariat meetings, the Council meeting (which incorporates regional meetings, a well as both state and subspecialty section meetings), hearings on issues affecting ophthalmology and Congressional Advocacy Day.

Advocacy Day
While the entire forum is valuable, one of the most critical components for YOs has traditionally been Congressional Advocacy Day. During a dinner briefing the first night, participants are provided with “issue briefs” prepared by the Academy’s Washington, D.C., office so that they fully understand the issues and the Academy’s positions. Academy leaders, led by congressional advocacy chairman Donald J. Cinotti, MD, explain the key issues facing ophthalmology and medicine as a whole.

The following day there is a quick continental breakfast, during which any last minute questions are answered. Then, from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., advocates visit members of Congress and their staff to lobby on behalf of ophthalmology. All meetings are pre-arranged by the Washington office based on participants’ zip codes.

YOs' Role at the Forum
The majority of people who attend the Mid-Year Forum are Academy leaders. Today, YOs can also be a part of the forum too, however, thanks in large part to the combined efforts of Beth Bruening, MD, Jennifer Smith, MD, and the Academy's Secretariat for State Affairs. Collaborating on a joint project as part of the Academy’s Leadership Development Program, Drs. Bruening and Smith suggested a way for state societies to introduce residents to advocacy through participation in Advocacy Day and the forum.

The Secretariat expanded upon this project and, in 2004, started a pilot program in collaboration with state societies and training programs to bring residents to the forum so they could participate not only in Advocacy Day, but in all forum sessions and as special guests at the Council meeting. Through this new program, dubbed the Advocacy Ambassador Program, the state society would sponsor (i.e. pay the travel costs) for the residents and the Academy would waive the forum registration fee.

That pilot year, 14 residents participated in the program. This effort has since greatly expanded to include collaboration with both state and subspecialty societies to sponsor those undergoing fellowship training. In 2008, 28 state, subspecialty society and training programs sponsored 102 residents and fellows.

The goal of the program is to engage and educate YOs about the importance of advocating for their profession early on in their careers. The Ambassador program also helps YOs understand the importance of membership and proactive involvement in their respective state ophthalmology and subspecialty societies. Most importantly, by participating in Advocacy Day and the forum, YOs see first-hand the critical issues facing medicine and specifically ophthalmology.

Opportunity of a Lifetime
The program is a great opportunity for YOs and members alike. Past ambassador Stephen Khachikian, MD, who was sponsored by The Cornea Society, was amazed at what a great learning opportunity the entire Mid-Year Forum experience proved to be. Not only did he discover the myriad of issues facing the state, the nation and the greater ophthalmic community, but, more importantly, he learned how to get involved and be a part of the solution.

“Had it not been for my experience at the Mid-Year Forum,” Dr. Khachikian said, “I may never have thought about the legislative issues facing our profession. But now I see that there are two faces to the practice of ophthalmology — the clinical and the legislative. And you must play a role if you want to have a voice in the future of ophthalmology.”

Other participants have taken their experiences in the capital back home to share their new-found insights with other residents. One such case was Chris Thiagarajah, MD. Even though Dr. Thiagarajah attended Howard University in Washington, D.C., he did not participate in Advocacy Day his first year there. However, after hearing from a friend that it was the best experience the friend had ever had, he decided to check it out. After attending the following year, Dr. Thiagarajah said he learned just how important advocacy is to the practice of medicine.

He was so excited by this realization that he took it upon himself to work with Robert A. Copeland Jr., MD, the Howard ophthalmology department chair, to let all residents attend Advocacy Day the following year. “I was able to get permission and helped to facilitate it,” Dr. Thiagarajah said. “The next year, all Howard residents went to Advocacy Day, and from what I understand, they had 100 percent again the next year, after I graduated.”

Diana Shiba, MD, had a very similar experience. For her, the forum was a chance to see both the issues that ophthalmology faces presently and will face in the coming years. Upon her return from the forum, she made a presentation about her experiences to fellow residents, which is a requirement for residents and fellows who attend the forum through the Ambassador program. Dr. Shiba says, “Sharing these types of experiences with our fellow residents is a great way to educate them on current issues and inspire them to get involved.”

That inspiration doesn’t just touch residents. Ralph C. Lanciano Jr., DO, has been one of the mentors who provide advocate coaching at the Mid-Year Forum. “Advocacy is most successful when mentored by ‘seasoned’ colleagues,” he says. “In some ways, it may be costly to the mentors, the state and subspecialty societies and the Academy, but the eventual yield is priceless. Without the next generation learning and understanding what lies ahead and what pitfalls they may face, they are truly ill-prepared or worse, apathetic, to the needs of their profession.”

Dr. Lanciano acknowledges that a meeting with a legislator can seem “daunting,” but says that “with time and effort, [it] gets more comfortable and eventually enjoyable. You soon realize the importance of ‘being at the table,’ where you and your colleagues’ futures are being formulated.”

Make Political History
With the excitement currently surrounding politics, now is the time to get involved. We are on the threshold of incredible challenges, which often leads to incredible opportunities. Be a part of those opportunities by attending the Mid-Year Forum.

This year’s forum will be April 22 to 25 at the Capital Hilton in Washington, D.C. Register online or get more information about the Advocacy Ambassador Program by contacting Gail Schmidt, the Academy's director of ophthalmic society relations. And we will see you in Washington!

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About the author: Kimberly Day is a freelance health writer and medical editor and a frequent contributor to YO Info. She is the co-author of Hormone Revolution and ghost writer of Eat Papayas Naked.