“Advocacy is an essential part of being a physician regardless if you are an osteopathic or allopathic physician. Physicians advocate all day long on behalf of their patients and their needs. Therefore, I think it is essential that as medical students, we begin to learn this critical skill early on so that we are prepared to effectively advocate as physicians.”
These wise words come from Kathryn Johnston, a second-year student in DMU’s doctor of osteopathic medicine (D.O.) program and national liaison for the University’s Student Osteopathic Medical Association (SOMA) chapter. She was among the DMU students who joined osteopathic physicians and other students from across the country in Washington, DC, the last week of April to talk with elected officials about issues important to them as part of DO Day on Capitol Hill, an event of the American Osteopathic Association (AOA). This year, students represented AOA on three topics:
- Rural physician workforce – encouraging physicians to practice in rural areas by creating tuition abatement and loan repayment programs
- Halting Medicare cuts – reimbursing health care providers fairly for services for older Americans
- Parity and preservation of payment for telehealth services – recognizing the high value of such services, which were used more widely during the COVID-19 pandemic and are especially critical in rural areas
DMU students met with senators, representatives and their staffs during their visit. For Iowa, those officials included Senator Joni Ernst, Representative Randy Feenstra, Representative Dr. Mariannette Miller-Meeks and health policy aides to Senator Charles Grassley and Representative Cindy Axne. DMU students from other states joined fellow D.O. students to meet with members of their states’ delegations.
The experience was “exhilarating,” says DO Day participant, Mikayla Brockmeyer, D.O.’24, in part because it was among the first advocacy experiences students were able to have in person. Last fall she participated in Advocacy Day of the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine (AACOM), which was held virtually. The medical student director on the Iowa Medical Society (IMS) Board, she also joined the IMS for Physician Day on the Hill at Iowa’s Capitol Building in February.
“Combining these experiences prepared me well for DO Day,” she says. It also equipped her to join Tom Benzoni, D.O., EM, AOBEM, FACEP, assistant professor of osteopathic clinical medicine at DMU, in training other students in the fine art of advocacy. Before meeting with legislators, they reviewed fact sheets on the three advocacy topics and practiced delivering their messages concisely and effectively, mindful of the importance of also listening, being ready for interruptions and setting aside one’s personal political opinions. Most important, Mikayla says, was encouraging students to speak about themselves and their personal connections to the issues.
“The legislators have binders on these topics, but hearing from a student who wants to practice in rural Iowa but is concerned about medical school debt gives a personal, real-life perspective,” she says.
That was the case for Kathryn Johnston, who is from a big farming community in California that is medically underserved.
“I have seen the devastating impact that a lack of access to care can have on a community,” she says. “I think that the Rural America Health Corps Act will provide a necessary incentive to retain physicians in rural and medically underserved communities.”
The act, now in Congress, would establish a demonstration program to provide payments on eligible loans for individuals in the National Health Service Corps Loan Repayment Program – which, Kathryn says, “is wonderful at getting physicians into underserved areas; however, it lacks in the ability to keep physicians in these communities beyond their two-year agreement.”
“I believe this [Rural America Health Corps] Act will help address the rural health professional shortage by increasing the retention of physicians in communities that need them, just like the one I grew up in,” she adds. “Hopefully, this act will pass and we can begin to work on eliminating disparities in access to care, because one’s zip code should not determine the quality of care they receive.”
Mikayla says the students’ practice with each other paid off in their conversations with legislators. “They got better even over the course of the day,” she says. “There was so much energy with all the D.O. students at the Capitol, and we got the sense the legislators really are there to serve us.”
During their time in DC, the students got to meet DMU graduate and AOA CEO Kevin Klauer, D.O., EJD, FACEP, the first osteopathic physician to lead AOA operations since 1981. They also spent a morning at a local climbing gym, which Mikayla says helped “set our brains” for an afternoon of advocacy – a precursor for a lifetime of advocacy, she hopes.
“I’m really proud of what we did. Everyone who went now has that experience under their belt,” she says. “The students were committed. Everyone who went had exams when we got back.”
For Kathryn, the Washington visit was her first advocacy experience, but she has long planned such efforts be part of her medical practice.
“I double-majored in political science in undergrad because I wanted to be able to use my future medical knowledge to advocate and make a positive impact on the health care system,” she says. “As a physician, I want to be able to reach more than the one patient I am treating at a time. I believe that through advocacy, I will be able to create change that has a long-lasting impact on a larger audience. Therefore, it was so exciting to be able to participate in DO Day and to get my first exposure on how to effectively advocate for changes in the health care system.”