The 4-1-1 on Medical Student advocacy on Parliament Hill

Posted on 05 February 2013 by Jimmy Yan (Meds 2015)

The first weekend of February is usually quite a special weekend. No I’m not talking about Ground Hog day here. It’s special because it is generally the time when medical students coast to coast in Canada assemble (much like the Avengers) on Parliament Hill in the 613 (that’s Ottawa, yo) to lobby for political action and greater advocacy. It’s an event that is hosted and organized by the Canadian Federation of Medical Students.

This year, I was part of the Schulich delegation to this CFMS Lobby Days. As such, I’m going to be sharing with YOU the big Cole’s notes of this weekend. I realize that advocacy is an area that is pretty ambiguous during our years of medical training, so I hope that this experience of advocacy work (while by no means the only type of advocacy experience), helps shine some light on how medical student advocacy can work.

So first things first: Ottawa is cold. WAY. TOO. COLD. Especially for a balmy wuss of a Vancouverite like myself. Quickly after arrival at Ottawa, I realized why all the politicians still use Blackberrys: 20 seconds after exposing your bare fingers to operate a touch screen and the beginnings of frost bite start setting in. Truth.

Another immediate impression: try avoiding to schedule the hotel for all your delegates at the same “Official” hotel of Winterlude, the massive annual winter festival in Ottawa during the same period. Essentially the hotel we were staying at was completely overbooked between tourists, med students, even a wedding party.

No. We did not crash the Wedding.

So our first day, Saturday, consisted of just getting settled in and meeting the other delegates. I noticed a lot of familiar faces, I guess these circles are pretty tight knit. Should be something I can expect moving forward. Back in my undergraduate days of student union politics the term we used was ‘hacks’. Well, it’s funny seeing so many med student political ‘hacks’ too. It was doubly funny running into Tahara, a 3rd year at UBC, who was a political hack with me back when we were members of the UBC student union council.

As a side note, this was the first time I got to skate on the Rideau Canal. While it was definitely a fun experience, and OMG MAPLE TAFFY IS DELICIOUS, $16 for a 2 hours of skate rental is definitely a bit expensive.

During the second day, the delegates spent 8 hours of the Sunday night and afternoon being trained on how to approach MPs and what exactly was the best way to frame our concerns and the Ask we are lobbying for (without getting into too many details, our Ask this year focused on improving the level of research and information at the national level on how to project future health human resource demands). There was a variety of speakers from different realms of political experience, and several workshops to practise. In the end of it all, we learned some valuable lessons on advocacy, communications, student leadership, and self-development.

These included points such as:

  • An MD is not an auto leadership indicator, it simply is an opportunity to become a leader
  • One of the best things a person could possibly do as a leader is to surround themselves with smarter people
  • If you want something done efficiently, force a lazy person to do it
  • No mistake or ‘inadvertent’ complexity in a piece of federal policy is done so simply by accident
  • There are differences between simple, complicated, and complex
  • Everyone likes to chirp Mac. Even Mac grads will deliberately go out of the way to beak the Mac medical experience

With all these, and many more points discussed, we were ‘trained’ to disperse and conquer the Nation’s capital.

Monday consisted of over 70 separate meetings between students, MPs, Senators, and Ministers’ Aides. It was very astounding to see the amount of activity that was happening. While I only had 3 meetings, I kept on running into students off to conduct their own sessions. We were everywhere.

Another thing that was astounding: the cold. It got windy. Damn.

Two other shocks, that really shouldn’t have been shocks, came during the day was how prevalent Twitter use among politicians was, and how many security check points I had to go through. I guess Obama made Twitter cool for every politician because they were much more prolific on the social media front than many of the students. The issue about security made sense. I mean it was the nation’s capital. I guess protecting it every now and then would be expected.

Overall, my experience with how our Asks were received was pretty positive. I had a wide range of MPs to speak to, from all the different parties. They all seemed to be on the same page regarding improving health human resources and getting the ball rolling on figuring out what the long term needs of Canadian patients would be. Despite all the grandstanding and overt displays of theatrics in Question Period, the MPs were all very willing and happy to hear from young minds talking about concerns that could impact the health of many citizens.

I guess it’s easy to forget or overlook the fact that many of these MPs started their roles out of desire to serve their constituents and to improve things in their ridings…based off the understanding of what needs to be fixed. In a lot of the way, it’s similar to the way physicians operate. We both are service leaders, and often the second word in that label ‘scares’ the public from approaching us. However, when speaking to the MPs, it became quickly easy to  see that what was really happening was merely two people forming a relationship and starting a dialogue.

So what’s the big deal with Lobby Day weekend? Despite the cold (for the 3rd time yes I know), it was a great experience. Getting to see the capital was a great privilege, as was the opportunity to meet and work with some of the brightest medical student minds from across the country. However, where the real value lies is in seeing how simple the whole advocacy process works. It’s about just getting out there and speaking your mind to someone you would like something out of. It shouldn’t be too difficult, after all, we all went through FIFE.

I highly encourage any student out there with the slightest interest in learning more about the role of politics and health care policy on the practise of physicians to considering coming out to the next set of Lobby Days as they happen nationally next year at the same time, or provincially under the OMSA in April.

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