Dr. George M. Abraham, new ACP president, and Dr. Thomas G. Cooney, new chair of the Board of Regents, say advocating on patients' behalf can impact health and well-being
May 21, 2021 (ACP) -- The new leaders of the American College of Physicians are experienced hands at the art of advocacy, and they are looking forward to continuing their mission to speak out about the needs of patients and physicians.
“It's crucially important for physicians to be effective advocates for patients,” said Dr. George M. Abraham, the new president of ACP and former chair of the ACP Board of Governors. “We need to be out there speaking on their behalf because we are very effective communicators. Our voice will be heard and respected, but only if we get out there and speak.”
Dr. Thomas G. Cooney, new chair of the ACP Board of Regents, agrees. “We know that health is so much more than health care,” said Cooney, who has served as chair of the ACP Health and Public Policy Committee. “We can have an enormous impact on the health and well-being of our patients and the population through advocating for policies and laws that impact every aspect of their lives, from the environment to firearms safety to nutrition and food access, as just a few examples. And clearly, we can advocate for needed changes to laws and policies that impact access to affordable health care and the regulations that affect the practice of medicine.”
Abraham, a resident of Central Massachusetts who serves as professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and chief of medicine and emeritus president of the medical staff at Saint Vincent Hospital, has made advocacy a priority for years. He has participated in the annual ACP Leadership Day event, when physicians from across the country converge in Washington, D.C., to meet with lawmakers and their staffs, and he helped organize the first statewide Leadership Day in Massachusetts.
Partnerships with lawmakers are key. “I always make it a point to ask about their priorities and explore where there is synergy with ACP's priorities,” Abraham said. “If there's agreement, we often offer to be resources -- people they can call on, such as when they need assistance in moderating an event. They always gratefully accept our offers.”
These partnerships pay dividends, he said, because “lawmakers are more open to listening to the points we make when we've made a friendly and mutually beneficial connection.”
For his part, Abraham is especially proud of his work on behalf of international medical graduates. “They bring so much value, especially during the pandemic. Many come in on a visa that requires them to work in underserved areas at the end of their training,” he said. “When we've had roadblocks with trainees who need to enter the country, I've been able to reach out to the office of our local congressman and secure their entry. I look forward to bringing more attention to the importance of these physicians to our national health care system.”
On the opposite coast, Cooney, professor of medicine at the Oregon Health and Sciences University and staff physician at the Portland VA Medical Center, said his advocacy work began when he pushed the local K-12 school district to provide more support to minority students in science, technology, engineering and math instruction.
“Later, I became involved in national-level advocacy through my role as a member and later chair of the Public Policy Committee of the Association of Program Directors,” he said. “This led to advocacy with members of Congress over many years about issues impacting graduate medical education. More recently, I have worked closely with ACP in advocating at a state and federal level on a wide range of issues that impact our patients and the practice of medicine.”
Moving forward, Cooney said he will focus on the power of storytelling. “Although data is always important, our patients' stories -- and our accounts of how policies and laws impact them -- have always proved most effective,” he said. “In addition, developing long-term relationships with legislators and their staff, often particularly their staff, provides one important credibility that can often lead to them reaching out to us for advice and recommendations when they encounter issues outside their areas of expertise.”
And he will urge ACP members to get involved. “In many ways, advocacy is a core competency for physicians as we are often advocating for our patients and their families as they struggle to navigate our fragmented health care system,” he said. “Start with your ACP Chapter and participate in ACP Leadership Day. It is a great introduction to being a physician advocate.”
Abraham said he will focus attention on the ACP New Vision priorities, which ACP laid out in a series of four policy papers that were published in early 2020. “The papers focus on our vision of where health care in the United States should go and how we can reform our current health care system to meet its challenges,” he said. “We're ready to advocate on behalf of the vision, especially now that we have a presidential administration that might be more willing to listen to us.”
Abraham also emphasized the importance of physicians speaking up for themselves and their patients. “My favorite quote is: ‘If you're not at the table, you're on the menu,’” he said. “We often get short shrift because we have not been able to advocate for ourselves. My plea to everyone is that we need to get out and advocate for ourselves, our patients and their needs.”