May 2011
PAEA Networker

Don't Be an Ostrich. Speak Out!

When you think about political action, have you ever uttered any of the following phrases?
  • I’m not interested in politics.
  • I don't have time.
  • I’m not familiar with my district’s representative/senators.
  • I’m not qualified to communicate effectively with a member of Congress on these issues.
  • I pay dues to my professional organization. They take care of these issues on my behalf.
  • Although the standards say I'm required to teach health care policy, students aren't interested in it.

The current health care landscape is complicated, and the political environment is often antagonistic. So we do what any self-respecting ostrich would do: We put our heads in the sand and pretend that it doesn’t exist. We tell ourselves that it will work itself out. We’ll let someone else take care of it.

Considering the rapidly changing landscape of the health care system in the face of reform, it is now more important than ever to reevaluate our attitudes towards grassroots advocacy. Our profession is fortunate to have excellent representation through PAEA’s Government Relations Department and AAPA’s Federal Affairs Division. The paid staff members within our professional organizations are making important connections with legislators, policy makers, and other national professional organizations that serve to elevate recognition and acceptance of PAs as an integral part of the U.S. health care delivery system. It is imperative that PAs have a presence at the “big tables” as policies are written that have an  impact on PA education, practice, reimbursement, and access to federal grants and funding sources. 

PAEA and AAPA work hard to keep abreast of the changes occurring in Washington and at the state level; however, we cannot rely upon our professional organizations to shoulder this responsibility alone. They need the assistance of PAs who are in the trenches — both those who educate future providers and those who practice medicine. Elected officials must hear from PA practitioners and educators if we want them to understand and act on issues that affect us, including the impact of cuts in reimbursement, loss of grant funding, and restrictions on PA practice. Our professional organizations may be the voice, but it is PAs who are the megaphone. It is not only our right — but our professional responsibility — to speak out on behalf of our profession.

Professional advocacy is an important piece of PA education that is often underemphasized and overlooked. An attitude of professional responsibility and advocacy must be rooted early in PA education and then cultivated. As PA educators, we need to examine our responsibility for mentoring students in developing professional values. We can foster this behavior by serving as role models, leading by example, and re-evaluating ways in which we can educate students on the importance of advocating for their profession.

How can you make a difference? I encourage you to start by taking three steps. First: Kill the ostrich. Re-examine your own attitudes about advocacy. Consider the culture within your program. Is professional advocacy being taught? Encouraged? Modeled? Think of creative ways that you can incorporate these values into your curricula or student activities.

Second: Know your legislators. You can find information about your senators and representative by going to www.senate.gov/ or www.house.gov/. Open dialogue with those who represent you is welcomed by legislators and their assistants. It is not uncommon to receive a call or email in return asking for clarification on the issues you have addressed. You do not need to be a policy expert to discuss matters intelligently. Simply speak from your personal experience and express how the issue directly impacts your practice. Building positive relationships between PAs and legislators will serve to strengthen our collective voice. If you would like to obtain specific information about legislative issues pertinent to PA education or discuss ways to build a relationship with your legislators, contact PAEA’s Director of Government Relations, Athena Abdullah, at (703) 548-5538, ext. 303, or aabdullah@PAEAonline.org.

Third: Become a member of AAPA’s GAIN (Grassroots Advocacy and Information Network). This is an excellent way to stay informed about the issues and policy changes facing the PA profession. Through GAIN, members are provided information regarding current legislative topics and given tips and tools to make communicating with members of Congress easy. AAPA GAIN will contact you when action is needed on key federal or state issues. With a few clicks of the mouse, you can email your senators or representative with pertinent facts regarding the issue at hand. All messages can be customized to reflect your personal experience and how the issues affect you directly.

In order to ensure that the next generation of PAs continues to protect and promote our profession, we must deliberately create a culture of advocacy. The "Ostrich Approach" is no longer adequate. Happily keeping our heads in the sand and assuming that someone else is dealing with the issues on our behalf is not an option if we hope to maintain the rights and privileges we have enjoyed as practitioners until now.