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Young Ophthalmologists
Advocacy Day: A Chance to Make Issues ‘Local’ for Your Legislators
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To say that our country is in the middle of serious financial and international uncertainty is an understatement. And given that this is an election year, there appears to be a growing interest in politics and political involvement.

For you, this involvement may take the form of holding or attending fundraisers, proudly displaying the button or sticker of your preferred candidate, or gluing yourself to the array of debates and commentary. But what about advocating in one area where your voice is certain to be heard: ophthalmology.

And the timing couldn’t be more perfect for you to jump into the political arena and attend Advocacy Day.

What is Advocacy Day?
Congressional Advocacy Day takes place during the Mid-Year Forum and provides an opportunity for ophthalmologists to “storm the Hill” as they lobby members of Congress on the concerns facing ophthalmology now and in the future.

During a dinner briefing the first night, Advocacy Day attendees 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. The following day, attendees visit members of Congress and their staff to lobby on behalf of ophthalmology. All meetings are pre-arranged by the Washington office based on the attendees’ zip codes.

YO Lindsay Rhodes, MD, with Sen. Harry Reid
Lindsay Rhodes, MD, with Sen. Harry Reid.

According to YO Lindsay Rhodes, MD, a resident at the University of Alabama Medical Center in Birmingham, Ala., Advocacy Day is an exciting opportunity to participate in the political process that defines our nation. 

“Prior to beginning medical school, I worked in U.S. Senator Harry Reid's office for two years,” Dr. Rhodes said. “Due to that previous experience of being on the Congress member's side of advocacy, I was eager to participate in Advocacy Day with my ophthalmology colleagues on the constituent's side of advocacy.” The Academy has since appointed her to the YO advocacy subcommittee.

For Karen Schmitt, MD, a resident at Vanderbilt Eye Institute, the benefits of Advocacy Day are something that every YO should experience. “This is an incredible complement to our training,” says Dr. Schmitt. “Our presence and projection of our voices as professionals and advocates for ourselves and our patients are invaluable. Though the issues and the process is still a bit foreign and intimidating, a lesson I’ve learned before was enforced: a powerful action is showing up!”

Julia Haller, MD, ophthalmologist-in-chief of the Wills Eye Institute, echoes this sentiment. “The first time I attended Advocacy Day, I realized how important it is to have a voice in the political process,” she said. “This is not something we are taught in medical school.” To complement her residents’ education, Dr. Haller sends a contingent from Wills to the Mid-Year Forum and Congressional Advocacy Day each year, as part of the Advocacy Ambassador Program.

Relationships are the Key
As past participants have indicated, one time is never enough when it comes to Advocacy Day. Relationships are key.

“Visiting my Congressmen with Dr. Paul Sternberg [the Academy’s president-elect] and other leaders from the Tennessee Academy of Ophthalmology, I learned from senior members how to conduct meetings, convey an agenda, and establish relationships with one’s representatives in D.C.,” Dr. Schmitt said.

Dr. Rhodes stressed that “all politics are local.” By repeatedly visiting your congressional representatives, you are building a relationship and making yourself and your issues known in a way that reminds the Congress member about their constituents at home.

“When a Congress member knows the local ophthalmologist, solving Medicare payment issues is no longer a numbers game,” she said, “but becomes an issue of whether that Congress member's constituents can receive their wet AMD treatments or glaucoma medications in order to maintain their vision. Also, as bills come up in the House or Senate, the Congress member knows you and knows who to ask about the importance of various bills.”

For Dr. Haller, repeat visits are crucial. “You always learn a bit more each time and begin to develop relationships with the representatives, so your time is even better spent on subsequent visits,” Dr. Haller said.

“There’s no substitute for face-to-face to develop these relationships, express opinions and emphasize points you want to make,” she said. “Our elected officials are people just like me and you. To get to know them and have them understand your point of view, you have to put effort into it, just like any relationship.”

The idea of meeting with your representative in person is similar to the benefits of seeing a patient in your office versus doing a phone consult. “It would be hard to imagine taking care of patients over the phone or Internet,” Dr. Rhodes said. “As physicians, we interact with our patients in person in order to understand their concerns and their medical problems. It is the same with politicians. They need to meet their constituents face-to-face in order to understand their issues and concerns.”

Mentors as Guides
One of the valuable aspects of Advocacy Day is the role that mentors play. Dr. Haller, who has been both a mentor and been mentored herself, knows first-hand how tremendously important this role can be.

“One person alone cannot understand it all,” she said. “Having a senior person who has gone through the advocacy experience and who knows the ropes is very, very valuable.”

For Dr. Rhodes, having her Alabama Academy of Ophthalmology executive director there during her first Advocacy Day helped to put her at ease. “It was great to visit the Congressional offices with someone who has been doing this type of work for a long time and who knows how to form a bond with the staffer or Congress member while at the same time conveying our issues,” she said. “I hope to be a mentor in the coming years.”

Pointing you in the right direction is just one of the ways a mentor can help. They can also suggest ways of actually talking to your representative. As Dr. Rhodes learned, it is important to know your audience and pitch your issues in a way that is relevant to them. Part of this is using layman's terms to describe complex medical ideas to staffers, just as you would with patients.

Step Up and Make a Difference
Whether you’ve attended Advocacy Day several times or never before, it is important for all YOs to get involved early and often. “By visiting members of Congress in their Capitol Hill offices, a YO has the chance to represent their patients and their profession outside the clinical setting,” Dr. Rhodes said. “For someone who is unfamiliar with the practice of governing and law-making, participating in Advocacy Day can be quite enlightening about the constant work that must be done by physicians and the Academy in protecting our patients.”

Be sure to secure your place at this year’s Advocacy Day on April 25 and 26 in Washington, D.C. The dinner briefing takes place on Wednesday, April 25 from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at the Renaissance Downtown Hotel.

Advocacy Day itself begins on Thursday, April 26, with a continental breakfast from 7 a.m. to 8 am at the Renaissance. Afterward, you’ll head up the Hill until 3 p.m. to meet with your representatives.

There is no fee for Advocacy Day and there is complimentary registration to all Mid-Year Forum events for members-in-training.

If you haven’t yet made your reservations, there’s still time to register for Advocacy Day. When it comes to housing, rooms are available at the Renaissance Downtown Washington D.C. (meeting hotel) at $289 per night + tax. If you are local to the D.C. area, you can simply drive in and park at the hotel for the dinner briefing as well as Advocacy Day itself.

Don’t underestimate the impact you can have on the future of ophthalmology. “Hearing from the leadership of the Academy, OPHTHPAC and the Surgical Scope Fund, I became aware of how much is at stake and the role I can play,” Dr. Schmitt said.

And Advocacy Day is the best place to get started.

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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 contributing editor to Peak Health Advocate.

 
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