Advocacy and the Young Retina Physician

Young retina specialists should be aware of the benefits of advocacy.

By Larry Halperin, MD
 

If I am not for myself, who will be?

But if I am only for myself, what am I?

And if not now, when?

—Hillel the Elder

Advocacy is undeniably crucial to the future of our specialty. Who needs to be concerned and involved in advocacy more than young retina specialists? They will reap the benefits of advocacy efforts for years to come.

In the retina subspecialty, we are fortunate to have several senior members who are involved and committed to advocating on our behalf. These people have experience, knowledge, and commitment. They give of their time, relationships, money, and personal gifts to direct the trajectory of our specialty and our careers.

However, they are senior, and they will not be here forever. We need the youngest members of our subspecialty to join them and engage in advocacy.

IF I AM NOT FOR MYSELF, WHO WILL BE?

If we do not engage, if we do not advocate on our own behalf, no one else will. We cannot pass the buck on this; we have to get involved and tell our story. State representatives, state senators, and members of the U.S. Congress and Senate need to know who we are, what we do, and how we make a difference in the lives of the people we serve. We literally prevent blindness for thousands of people in our communities. In a given congressional district there are approximately 700 000 people. Thousands of people in each district have vision-threatening conditions such as diabetic retinopathy and macular degeneration. Politicians care about issues that affect their constituents, and we need to be the people they turn to when they want information and help.

What can retina subspecialists do? Get to know the health care specialists in the offices of your congressmen and senators. Share contact information with them and offer to help with citizens in their district—ie, your district—when problems arise. This is the key to advocacy. We cannot contact our members of Congress and make demands for support. We can offer our help and knowledge. This serves our community and serves our congressional representatives. Then, down the road, when we have issues, we have relationships with individuals who will take our calls and listen to our perspective.

BUT IF I AM ONLY FOR MYSELF, WHAT AM I?

Often, we see ourselves as going it alone. We may ask, “Why should I donate my money, or, more important, my time, to help my specialty? What is in it for me?”

If we all thought this way, if we were only in it for ourselves, then we would have no organizations, no leadership, no advocacy. Think of what that world would look like; it is not a pretty picture. The leaders of our professional organizations and our many advocates give of their time to the benefit of all of us. All of this time is uncompensated, and frequently those donating their time also spend their own money traveling to attend meetings and advocacy opportunities while losing time in the office.

But if you are only for yourself, what are you? Imagine our world, our specialty, if everyone gave a couple of days a year to advocacy, and gave some of their financial resources as well. Imagine, if we had 100% participation, what an impact we could have on behalf of our patients and our profession. Consider the different aspects of advocacy:

Time. It takes time to be involved, but not nearly as much as you might think.

Consider attending 1 event per year. There are several to choose from, including the American Academy of Ophthalmology’s Congressional Advocacy Day in Washington. There you get to visit our nation’s capital, meet your congressional representative, and, if you are lucky, see the cherry blossoms in full bloom. Or go to your state’s capital with members of your state ophthalmology society to meet your state representatives and senators. These experiences are associated with training programs to help you to learn how to interact properly and comfortably with politicians.

While you are doing these things, you should make a point of meeting the health care specialists in these elected officials’ offices; these are the people who are gathering information and analyzing positions. Offer to have the member of congress visit your office and watch you work, serving their constituents. This experience can have a huge impact.

Networking. Reaching out to politicians and their staff members can be a rewarding aspect of our professional lives. These people are highly intelligent public servants, and they need to serve their constituents. When they need help, we want to be the ones they turn to for guidance and problem-solving.

Imagine when a constituent contacts the office of your state representative because he or she is having problems accessing the medical system. If this constituent has a retina problem, the representative’s office can contact one of us for help. The patient is referred, we help take care of the problem, and we have made a friend. We have made the politician look good, as he or she has helped to solve a serious problem. This type of interaction is crucial to maintaining a conversation and maintaining access so we can tell our story.

Financial Commitment. There is certainly a financial aspect to the relationships that develop between advocates (all of us) and the politicians we are trying to inform and influence. The financial contributions we make get us to the table so that we can have the conversation. Imagine, if all 2000 retina specialists in the United States contributed annually, how different our world would look. If we all tell ourselves that someone else will take on this responsibility, this limits our resources. We do not want a small percentage of our specialty making contributions that benefit all of us.

Financial commitment takes the form of donating to political action committees such as OphthPAC and contributing directly to individual campaigns. Even $500 donations to individual campaigns can make a big impact over time. These contributions must be integrated with personal contact and relationships with the relevant elected officials. This integrated system is what makes advocacy work best.

AND IF NOT NOW, WHEN?

There has never been a time of greater change and challenge in the health care system. It is easy. Contact your state representative or senator and attend a local fundraising event. Make sure you meet the politician and his or her staff members. Sign up for AAO Congressional Advocacy Day in Washington, or contact your state ophthalmology society to attend an advocacy day in your state capital. Make a contribution to OphthPAC.

I promise that, if you do some or all of these things, you will feel empowered, and the enthusiasm will be contagious. And it is the right thing to do, for our profession and for our patients. n

Lawrence Halperin, MD, practices with the Retina Group of Florida and is chairperson of the communications committee for the American Society of Retina Specialists. Dr. Halperin may be reached at lhalperin@mac.com.

 

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About New Retina MD

New Retina MD delivers cutting-edge content to retina specialists in their first 15 years of practice. Each issue provides fresh insight from younger physicians plus established mentors on clinical and nonclinical issues affecting ophthalmologists in the earlier stages of their careers. NRMD features surgical pearls, clinical research endeavors, practice management, medical reimbursement and policy, continuing educational requirements, financial planning, innovations, and more.