• Grassroots Advocacy During COVID-19

    Our lives have been upended this spring due to the novel coronavirus and ensuing COVID-19 pandemic.

    Before it all happened, I had plans to participate in the Tennessee Medical Association’s local advocacy event, Doctor’s Day on the Hill, as well as the Academy’s Mid-Year Forum 2020 and Congressional Advocacy Day to advocate for our patients and our profession at the local and federal levels. 

    Although those in-person events were canceled, our grassroots efforts to make connections with our representatives have not been diminished. Thanks to video conferencing technology like Zoom, I have still been able to participate on calls with both local and state representatives. 

    My experience as resident representative to the Tennessee Academy of Ophthalmology and an Advocacy Ambassador at the Academy’s Mid-Year Forum emphasized how important advocacy is to our patients and our profession. 

    The people who have the power to change how we take care of our patients actually know very little of what we do every day. Therefore, it is our role to explain our positions to these individuals. Advocacy ranges from asking for more research funding so we can continue advancing the level of care we can offer to our patients to advising on policy decisions that allow us to adequately take care of our patients. Finally, the importance of advocating for our profession as the leader of the ophthalmic care team cannot be underscored enough.

    In Tennessee, we have watched closely as our neighboring states have had optometric scope battles. Some of those states have stopped the encroachment while others are still battling. Recently, the Tennessee optometric state society sent a letter to its members of a plan to expand their scope. 

    One critical grassroots strategy to professional advocacy is building relationships with our state leaders. We had plans to have in-person meetings at several events. Our plans were rescued by technology; surprisingly, our Zoom meetings were more successful than I anticipated. We were able to get four to five Tennessee Academy of Ophthalmology board members from across the state on calls with our representatives where we had their sole focus and time. No one even had to leave their clinics or their homes.  

    In fact, over the last few weeks alone, I have been on two video calls with state representatives, state Rep. Bob Freeman, D-56th District, and state Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-District 21.

    Our Zoom conferences, as many of you may be noticing, felt eerily like in-person conversations. We started with making sure everyone was doing well and continued with some small talk about families. 

    Being mindful of the representative’s time, we started our advocacy discussion. We discussed what laser privileges for optometrists would mean for our patients and our state. Both representatives were inquisitive and knowledgeable, pushing us on our position. Both conversations ended with us asking our representatives the best way to further our advocacy effort. The answers were consistent: Be the source of information for your representatives. Meet them, talk with them. When they have a question about a policy, be the connection that they email or call. 

    The more I am involved in advocacy, the more I realize that our governmental representatives are our neighbors and even our patients. Most of them have no medical training, so they rely on us to teach them and help them understand the issues. We want to be their resource, and the physicians they contact when they have a question. 

    But that all starts with taking the time to get to know them and building a relationship, like we do our neighbors and patients. Here are some more tips:

    • For those at home during this pandemic and wanting to make an impact, start with advocacy. Reach out to your state ophthalmology society or join if you’re not a member.
    • Offer to be available as a voice for other young ophthalmologists and attend state society and advocacy events. You can be involved in any grassroots efforts to contact representatives. You don’t have to do this alone-you can invite another person from your practice or training program. A short, 30-minute conversation goes a long way and can be the start of building that important relationship. 

    Further Resources

    Find out about the Academy’s Advocacy Ambassador program and learn how to advocate for the profession on the federal level.

    Alex de Castro-Abeger, MD, MBA

    About the author: Alex de Castro-Abeger, MD, MBA, is a PGY 4 at the Vanderbilt Eye Institute in Nashville, Tenn. and will complete a fellowship in pediatric ophthalmology and strabismus at the institute. He has been resident representative to the Tennessee Academy of Ophthalmology since 2017 and attended the Academy’s Mid-Year Forum as an Advocacy Ambassador in 2018 and 2019.