Blog Health Equity

How physicians can use their privilege to become a patient’s advocate

 Written by Laasya Vallabhaneni, BS neuroscience and cognitive Science at University of Arizona; SPRIGHT Scholar in the 2020 Institute for Public Health Summer Research Program – Public and Global Health Abbreviated Track

The physician is the ultimate patient advocate, finding themselves at an intersection where they have the power to help a patient outside of the clinic. Although patients come in with a health issue, what mostly hurts them is violence, homophobia, health threats, sexism, poverty, racism, disrupted family relationships, sexual violence, etc. A physician has the means to not only be of help inside the patient room but can “leverage influence to change [the] healthcare delivery system”, influence accessibility and mandate policy changes. The role of a physician is neither to simply preform a surgery nor prescribe medicine, but to advocate for the social, educational, economic and political rights of their patients to allow for better health outcomes in their communities.

A conversation with Dr. Katie Plax , medical director of the SPOT (Supporting Positive Opportunities with Teens), brought about advocacy roles physicians can play: the connector, the canary, the chronic illness diminisher, and the segregation buster. A physician who is a connector can share relationships with leaders in health care who are able to support community change. A canary can provide warning signs of health issues or danger by analyzing the environment of the patient. A chronic illness diminisher uses research to translate science in order to provide effective treatments and strategies. Lastly, the segregation buster can educate themselves on the racism and homophobia in medical systems to impact policies for equity of the disenfranchised people or enact proper treatment in the patient rooms.

Dr. Plax has taken on the social responsibility as a physician through the SPOT which goes to increase healthcare access for teens disproportionately affected by sexually transmitted diseases, homelessness, discrimination, sexual violence, etc. Thus far, the SPOT has served over 23,000 unduplicated teens over 11 years with 4,165 teens just in the last year. Dr. Plax describes the paradigm for effective change in health care which utilizes power, love and science. Without even one of these, the dynamic shifts and can become abusive or anemic.

Advocacy can be framed at the individual level or at the larger scale, but when someone earns the title of being a physician and provider, they must also accept the social responsibility that comes with the title and be agents of change for communities of need. To become a physician means coming from a somewhat privileged space. Recognizing this privilege is crucial to understanding that as physicians and healthcare workers, we may not always know what the needs of the patient really are underneath the obvious. It is then when it becomes most important to think about what the communities really need and who is not actually being seen. In addition, becoming a physician itself brings upon privilege and using this privilege to fight for systematic changes is the best way a physician can be a patient’s advocate.