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Improving Your Advocacy Skills: Educate and Empathize With Your Lawmaker

By Martin Trichtinger, MD

Note: Over the coming weeks, PAMED members will share why they have a passion for advocacy. Part 4 of this series features Martin Trichtinger, MD, an internal medicine physician in Abington, Pa., and speaker of PAMED’s House of Delegates.

Around 1985, when the Medical Professional Liability Catastrophe (CAT) Fund was in crisis, Dr. Trichtinger attended a meeting of physicians and lawmakers where a senator argued that only legislators could function as true patient advocates.

“That’s when I decided that physicians needed to speak up because the lawyers and legislators were trying to claim the ground of functioning as patient advocates.” Trichtinger pursues advocacy “on two levels—advocacy for the patient, and advocacy for physicians.”

During his first meetings with lawmakers, Dr. Trichtinger was surprised by “how much of medicine was not understood. If they don’t understand what you’re trying to explain, sometimes the message gets lost. You almost spent the initial phase getting somebody up to speed even before you get into a particular issue.”

Do you want non-physician legislators making critical decisions about how you treat your patients? Like it or not, they do. Take PAMED’s Physician Advocacy Basics CME, free for PAMED members, to learn how you can influence those decisions by becoming an effective advocate.

Familiarity breeds respect. As Trichtinger and his lawmakers have gotten to know each other, “they have an understanding of where I’m coming from, and I have an understanding of their problems, too, because many times it’s not just a straightforward yes or no question they have to answer.”

Understand the lawmaker’s frame of reference, he says. For instance, legislators who promised never to raise taxes need to hear how a new revenue source—an additional levy on cigarettes, for instance—would benefit a certain patient population or group.

When advocating for physicians, explain the need and why it’s an issue of fairness. “Legislators really do respond well to arguments about fairness.”

Many physicians believe that political involvement is “somehow beneath them,” but it’s essential to build a foundational relationship so you have credibility with the lawmaker at critical times. Otherwise, “they don’t know you from any other physician in the district.”

Take advantage of opportunities organized by PAMED and county chapters to meet legislators in informal settings “without a particular ‘ask.’ We talk about problems patients are experiencing, not even with mindset that they have to do something directly about it now. When you meet with legislators in less-intense settings, they will see you as a resource when they have a medical question in the future.”

If a particular interest motivates a physician, encourage them to follow it as an advocate. Trichtinger knows one doctor who connected with a lawmaker over a shared interest in the needs of children with disabilities.

“There’s a natural tendency to think somebody else will handle it. If you don’t convey the message, unfortunately, it might not be conveyed.” Advocacy is not as difficult as some physicians think, “and it’s more important and more satisfying once you’re able to get something accomplished. It is within the greater good of medicine that we need to do this.”

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