How physicians can get involved in public policy

By Samar Mahmoud, PhD | Fact-checked by Barbara Bekiesz
Published June 8, 2022

Key Takeaways

  • Physician involvement in public policy can positively impact patient care as physicians can bridge the gap between policy and the realities of clinical practice.

  • Physicians who have an interest in policy-making may be uncertain about the best mechanisms or pathways to pursue to get involved.

  • There are practical strategies that physicians can implement to help them achieve their public policy goals.

The active involvement of physicians in public policy is not only important for healthcare providers and policymakers, but it can also be highly beneficial in shaping patient care.[]

Physicians are well-equipped to positively affect public policy, as they‘ve directly witnessed the impact previous policies have had on their patients and on their ability to practice medicine.

However, mechanisms that enable physicians and other healthcare professionals to develop careers geared towards public policy are currently lacking.

While healthcare providers often notice issues in their communities that could be addressed through advocacy and changes to current legislation, many don’t know where or how to get started.

Why should physicians get involved?

There’s often a disconnect between public policy and the realities of medical practice.

This is an issue physicians involved in public policy are particularly poised to address.

There are many examples in American health policy of well-intentioned regulations that either never improved patient care or, worse, were ultimately detrimental.

For instance, the Electronic Health Record Meaningful Use program was intended to improve patient care and clinical quality by leveraging electronic health record technology. However, the program’s been under criticism for decreasing medical practice efficiency and disrupting clinical workflow.

Policy-making involvement exposes clinicians to a fast-moving environment where they can have broad impact on patient care.

Traditional research typically has a long turnaround time, whereas policy decisions—such as those that can affect health care delivery, utilization, access, and payment—often cannot be delayed until research is published.

This highlights the potential tensions that are a part of making policy changes. Physicians who better understand these constraints are more likely to conduct research that can help drive future legislation.

Barriers to involvement

While training in management and health policy are becoming increasingly common in medical schools and residency programs, opportunities for direct policy experience are less common.

Certain challenges young physicians may face (even beyond training) can hinder their success in public policy.

For example, traditionally, success in academic settings has been defined by achievements in research, which can take the form of publications in peer-reviewed journals or an ability to secure funding. A career geared towards public policy won’t get the same recognition at academic institutions.

There’s also an economic barrier that physicians need to consider. Pursuing a public policy career often requires cutting back on both clinical practice and compensation.

Opportunities to make a difference

Currently, several opportunities are available for physicians interested in public policy to get involved during medical school or afterwards, as early- to mid-career physicians. In medical school, physicians can pursue a medical degree along with a Master’s degree in Business Administration, Public Health, or Public Policy.

Medical students can apply for the American Medical Association’s Government Relations Advocacy Fellowship, a 1-year funded opportunity for students interested in advocacy and health policy.[]

Early- and mid-career physicians can also apply to the White House Fellows program, a 1-year funded experience that allows participants to work with top government officials.[]

Practical strategies

A 2019 article published by Family Practice Management detailed practical tips to help HCPs achieve their public policy goals.[]

1. Engage with elected officials

Elected officials are often perceived as being unapproachable.

But realize that most officials just want to better their communities, and physicians are in a great position to help them achieve their goals.

Connect with local officials on social media or by attending political party meetings or fundraisers. Once you do, leverage that connection and schedule a meeting to discuss your policy ideas. Consider serving on a commission, task force, or advisory board, as policy discussions originate at these meetings.

2. Choose your jurisdiction

One challenging part of advocating for policy change is determining which governing body’s best for passing legislation. While passing a law at the state level is likely to have the biggest impact compared to a local one, there may be much greater barriers to passing a state law.

3. Activate your allies

Physicians should build a coalition to provide momentum for their cause.

This means having the support to transform an issue into a health policy concern. Sometimes there are well-established coalitions in place that focus on certain healthcare issues that can become your powerful allies.

4. Mitigate the opposition

Any time you enter the political arena, you’ll likely face opposition.

Identify potential opposition and take the necessary steps to diminish and mitigate it. One way is to show that the policy changes you’re hoping to enact are a part of a wider agenda. You may need to ignore the opposition and push your legislation through. That’s especially true if you know you have the votes needed to pass the legislation.

What this means for you 

Physicians get to experience firsthand how public policy measures can affect their ability to practice medicine and impact patient care. However, those interested in shaping public policy often don’t have access to learning opportunities about doing so, either in medical school or during residency. A good strategy for enacting policy changes is to make connections with elected officials, understand jurisdictions, make allies, and address any potential opposition.

Related: Lives of service: Stories of healthcare professionals in congress
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