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A Call for Policy Education

Medical students learn the art and science of legislative advocacy through CMS
By Christiana Shoushtari, MPH, MS

Policy is the arena that dictates how medicine operates, how it treats the sick, how it prevents illness, how it reimburses providers, and how it covers consumers. During my time as a legislative staffer in the U.S. Senate, one thing stuck out for me: some health professionals did not seem to have a good enough grasp of the political process in order to hold purpose-driven conversations with Capitol Hill staffers. They certainly understood the data well and gave very passionate, moving clinical anecdotes. However, when it came to helping Capitol Hill staffers move an issue forward or work through potential political blockades, they were, unfortunately, unable to provide much support. They came to us with their concerns and demands, yet often were speechless or uncertain when asked for possible solutions, especially those with political, economic or social constraints.

When I decided to pursue medicine, I also had a secret personal mission: to expose the younger generation of medical students to the legislative, economic and political processes of the healthcare system, before the long hours of medical training, the pressure of the profession and the emotional toll of caring for patients could make them bitter, biased or broken down. And what better way to educate the young generation of rising physician leaders than through organized medical societies (Chicago Medical Society, Illinois State Medical Society, and American Medical Association). Organized medicine has the infrastructure and well-established relationships within the community, profession and legislators. While every organization certainly does have its biases, organized medicine is unique in that it represents a broad swath of medicine with representation from different sectors, specialties, and regions.

It is no secret that membership is declining in organized medical societies. I believe part of the reason has to do with the inherent difficulties of revamping an established institution to accommodate rapid changes in technology, thinking and communication among younger generations. For instance, I personally can attest to how difficult it is to adjust to social media. As a thirty-something-year-old, I’m often lumped with the millennial generation; however, I opened my first email account in college and first Facebook account in graduate school. While it can be difficult, time-consuming and humbling to have to learn new ways of communicating and expressing oneself, it is part of evolution and growth.

Organized medicine can add value to medical education by offering support, guidance and instruction in areas of medical practice that are not emphasized in medical school. We are trained to be excellent scientists, clinicians and healers, yet we have not been offered much training in how to actually navigate the professional work environment or healthcare system. Other physician duties may include balancing a budget, developing policies, negotiating expectations, and advocating for our patients. Certainly there are medical schools that do provide such training, as well as graduate school training to learn such practical skills, but I wonder what the impact on healthcare would be in 20, 30, or 50 years down the line if we were taught to understand this complex system from the very start of our training.

With the support and guidance of the Chicago Medical Society, we medical students have tapped into something new, promising and worth the investment. CMS created an educational policy series.  And through this series, we educated more than 100 students from all seven medical schools in Cook County on various topics (graduate medical education, value-based care, public health policy) and introduced them to prominent health policy leaders in our community. While there are always ways to improve upon initiatives, these efforts were very well received. Not only was the attendance at the educational policy series program greater than expected, we obtained funding support to fly students from each medical school to Washington, DC, where they met with congressional staffers and lawmakers on issues of importance to them.

Strong interest among medical students for policy lectures and legislative advocacy creates a unique opportunity for organized medicine. We students come from different backgrounds, with diverse interests and goals. Organized medicine can bridge that diversity and fill in the educational gaps when it comes to real-world practice. There is no better time to bring professionals together on their paths towards becoming passionate leaders.

Christiana Shoushtari, MPH, MS, is a third-year medical student at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She may be reached at:

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