Most ophthalmologists probably enter medicine with a desire to directly intervene in the lives and bodies of people who would otherwise lose some or all of their sight. Once further into practice, however, many discover that protecting patients’ sight takes both work in the clinic or lab and the offices of state and federal legislators. That’s why many young ophthalmologists have blocked out April 11 to participate in the Academy’s 2013 Congressional Advocacy Day in Washington, D.C.
The annual, free event, organized in conjunction with the Academy’s Mid-Year Forum, provides a chance for visiting ophthalmologists to meet with federal legislators and/or their staff. After ophthalmologists register to participate, the Academy schedules meetings for the delegations from each state. Participants usually visit Congressional offices in small groups, providing a chance for first-time advocates to learn from more experienced colleagues.
Young ophthalmologist (YO) Lindsay Rhodes, MD, a glaucoma fellow in Birmingham, Ala., said she’s come to appreciate the importance of Congressional Advocacy Day partly through treating many rural patients who face numerous barriers to receiving care and treatment. In order to provide them with proper treatment, Dr. Rhodes said she’s learned that many other systems need to be in place. To benefit from the care she can deliver, patients often need transportation, financial assistance, help getting drops, etc.
Lindsay Rhodes, MD (fourth from left), and other ophthalmologists meet with Rep. Martha Roby, R-Ala.
Although she can help 10 people in clinic, “when the next week I go to Capitol Hill … that’s affecting a whole, huge number of people,” Dr. Rhodes said. “It feels good to be working on medicine and on vision, specifically, from both ends — with my hands and also through broad, systemic changes.”
“Every ophthalmologist makes a huge difference when we’re there on Capitol Hill,” agreed Diana Shiba, MD, a comprehensive ophthalmologist in Los Angeles. Both she and Dr. Rhodes serve on the Academy’s YO advocacy subcommittee, which Dr. Shiba chairs. “I wish every ophthalmologist knew how important it is for us to be represented there,” Dr. Shiba said.
“Legislators are often just as confused about what ophthalmologists do as the general public,” Dr. Rhodes explained. “It’s very helpful for them to hear from an expert,” she said. Advocacy Day meetings not only provide a chance to educate legislators and their staffs about the profession, but also the needs of patients and systemic challenges — such as ongoing payment cuts and other issues — that keep ophthalmologists from meeting those needs.
Right to left: Advocacy Ambassadors Lindsay Rhodes, MD and Mark Hill, MD, met with Rep. Martha Roby, R-Ala., along with Wonsuck Kim, DO, and Mike Merrill, JD, of the Alabama Academy of Ophthalmology. ALAO sponsored Drs. Rhodes and Hill's attendance at the 2012 Mid-Year Forum.
And with repeated visits come recognition, relationships, trust and the chance to give greater input. Last year, Dr. Rhodes said the Alabama contingent went six for six, meeting directly with each of the federal legislators with whose offices they had appointments. In many cases, they were recognized, too. “You can see the investment of your time, going each year, starting to pay off,” she said. (Frequently physicians meet with legislators' staff, as the senator or representative may not always be available the desired day or time.)
Dr. Rhodes believes the stakes are particularly high for YOs who attend these meetings. Given the thousands of pages of regulations yet to be written to implement the health care reform law, YOs face “probably one of the most unique medical environments” in recent decades. “We’re the ones who have the most to invest in making these changes,” she said.
Academy staff expect that a large contingent of members in training will attend the forum for free through the Academy’s Advocacy Ambassador Program, a partnership between the Academy and state, subspecialty/specialized interest societies and training programs.
Even if you can’t attend this year, Drs. Rhodes and Shiba said there are still ways to help represent the profession to those involved in creating the regulations that govern much of medical practice. Dr. Shiba encouraged YOs to give to both the Academy’s Surgical Scope Fund, which fights nonphysician scope-of-practice expansions that threaten patient safety and the OPHTHPAC fund, the Academy’s political action committee.
It’s important to join your state ophthalmology society, too. Not only can your society help you connect with the local ophthalmology community, they can also apprise you of patient-safety issues on the legislative agenda that could affect your practice and those you treat and provide other kinds of education and support.
Dr. Rhodes also encouraged all young ophthalmologists to contact their state legislators. “Write them a letter, write them an email,” she said. “Most of those state legislators are really approachable because they’re not as busy.” You may even be able to schedule a 15-minute meeting to introduce yourself. “You might have a lot of patients that are the same customers they have in whatever business they have,” Dr. Rhodes said. “They start to value your input.” And who’s to say that state legislator won’t someday represent constituents like you at the federal level?
In the end, political advocacy comes down to her neediest patients, Dr. Rhodes said. “How do we keep them from going blind?” For all the work you can do in clinic, preserving sight may also mean helping your state and federal legislators understand their role in helping you fight blindness.
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About the author: Christi A. Foist is the managing editor for YO Info and the Web and member communications editor for the Academy’s website.