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Learning to be the advocate my patients deserve: Examining the intersection of advocacy & public health

Written by Jada Phillips, MD candidate, University of Missouri-Columbia School of Medicine and the James A. Harding Research Scholar in the 2022 Institute for Public Health Summer Research Program

Jada Phillips

My philosophy in healthcare is that in order to completely treat the illness, we must also acknowledge the circumstances from which that illness came. I have spent the majority of this most recent school year learning how the body should work, and the ways that we can help it heal through medical interventions when things go wrong. However, this summer I’ve gained a more in-depth knowledge on how circumstances outside of the body have just as much influence on our health as the systems within.

I have heard the phrase “social determinants of health” sprinkled throughout my training, but have I really examined how this should affect the way that I will treat my patients? How would I tell an obese patient to “eat healthier” when there isn’t a grocery store within a 5-mile radius? In reality, this patient’s situation can be described as living in a “food desert.” This means that the individual doesn’t live in close proximity to accessible and affordable healthy food options, like a local grocery store with fresh foods. I’ve learned that people in these areas are at an increased risk of obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and other conditions. Knowing that all of these elements are contributing to the health of these patients, I recognize that I will have to be creative and flexible in the way that I will provide care. So, how can I use my position to advocate for better circumstances? I think the answer lies within public health education and cultural humility.

As part of the speaker seminar series in the Summer Research Program – Public & Global Health Track, I am learning about the 17 different U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Each individual goal, from clean water to reduced inequality, contributes to better health outcomes for communities. Hearing from the summer program’s amazing speakers on how the implementation of the SDGs increases the overall health of society, I am motivated by the fact that there are pathways being paved that future and present healthcare workers, like myself, can mimic to increase our own communities’ public health. However, in reflecting on these SDGs thus far, and my hometown of St. Louis, it is impossible not to see a pattern of health disparities in communities where certain SDGs are lacking. These health disparities usually directly affect groups of people that are already vulnerable and marginalized, so it is up to healthcare professionals to advocate on their behalf and meet patients where they are.

As a student training to be a physician, I understand that I must take the extra step to educate myself on things that may not be explicitly taught in the classroom, and use that knowledge to be the advocate that my patients deserve. Although medical education and the field itself is demanding, it would be remiss not to use the tools that I have at my disposal to educate myself as much as I can and continue to subscribe to the idea of life-long learning and cultural humility. Understanding the intersectionality and complexity of an individual’s life is challenging, but it is also essential for the health of my future patients.