Published 9/1/2011
John T. Gill, MD

Tips to becoming better physician advocates

Build a working relationship with your Congressional representatives

With ongoing discussions over health insurance reform, the physician payment system, a potential Medicare overhaul, and other healthcare challenges, it is more important than ever that you—as an orthopaedic surgeon—establish relationships with your Congressional representatives.

Who better than you can educate them about the importance of orthopaedic practice? Who better than you can explain the significance of maintaining physician autonomy and protecting the doctor-patient relationship from outside interference?

But to effectively deliver those messages, you need to have a working relationship with your Congressional representatives. The goal is not only that you know their names, but that they know your name. The following tips will help get you started.

In-district meetings
When the House and Senate are not in session, members of Congress schedule events in their districts to meet and talk with their constituents. This provides a wonderful opportunity for you to introduce yourself to them. In-district gatherings might consist of town hall meetings, tele-town halls, office hours, “coffee on your corner,” or similar events.

These events are often posted on your senator’s or representative’s website, but you may also call the local district office to see when an event is occurring near you. Many members of Congress also have constituent newsletters and social media accounts, such as Facebook and Twitter, which provide constituents with updates on events. If you show interest in what they are doing in the district and what they are putting out on social media or their websites, you’re more likely to get their attention and interest in you.

You might also pay attention to what charities your members of Congress support. I know one representative who spends one Saturday morning a month picking up trash at a local lakeshore and invites anyone to assist him. Spend a few hours of your time working on his or her charity of interest and it’s much more likely that your member of Congress will remember your name next time you meet.

Pay a visit
To schedule an appointment with your member of Congress, call either the local district or the Washington, DC, office. Your representative or senator may be more inclined to meet with you in the local office rather than in Washington.

A local meeting has several advantages. It confirms that you are indeed a constituent, it is usually more relaxed, and the member’s time is more predictable. If you get an appointment, remember that the meeting will be brief, usually 10 to 15 minutes.

Know what you want to say and bring issue materials to help you get your point across quickly and efficiently. The American Association of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) website has one-page summaries of relevant issues. If you want to discuss and understand an individual issue in more depth, contact the AAOS office of government relations at (202) 546-4430 prior to your visit.

Local Congressional offices are public spaces, so you could just make a drop-in visit. If you do, however, you’re more likely to meet with a staff member than with your representative or senator. To improve your chances of meeting with your representative or senator, visit www.contactingthecongress.org o locate the appropriate phone or fax number and schedule an appointment. Don’t use email for an initial meeting request unless you know the name and direct email address of the scheduler.

Be an advisor
With just about 20 physicians in the House and 3 in the Senate, chances are that you are not being represented by a doctor. Politicians generally have expertise in some area such as banking, telecom, manufacturing, or real estate, but may not really understand healthcare issues.

As a result, many members of Congress have established local healthcare advisory panels, usually consisting of local physicians and hospital and insurance personnel. If yours has done so, why not see if you can join it? If he or she doesn’t have a panel, offer to put one together. These panels are usually win-win situations because you get a venue to tell your story and to educate your member of Congress on healthcare issues.

Join the campaign
Perhaps the single best way to develop a meaningful relationship with your member of Congress is to assist with his or her next campaign. House members never really stop raising money and running for re-election, unless they decide to retire.

Consider volunteering to serve on the finance committee, for example, and reach out to friends, family, and colleagues to help generate support. Fundraising is a necessary evil for any office holder and a task that most disdain. Any help you can provide will definitely be noticed and go a long way toward making you a trusted member of the team.

Reach across the aisle
What if the representative from your district is diametrically opposed to your way of thinking? You can still schedule a meeting with him or her or attend a town hall session. Try to educate your representative on the issues. Remember, the goal is not to agree on everything, but to get your foot in the door with just one issue. The result may be a “yes” vote on a pro-orthopaedic piece of legislation and an opening on future issues.

Look outside your district
If your representative or senator is unwilling to listen or refuses to meet with you, consider “adopting” one from a neighboring district. Also, keep in mind that the next election is always just around the corner. Be on the lookout for someone who would be a worthy opponent and consider lending your support or hosting a fundraiser. To learn more about hosting a fundraiser, contact Cheka Gage in the office of government relations (
gage@aaos.org or 202-546-4430).

The key to successful advocacy, just like the key to delivery of high-quality health care, is a strong personal relationship with the client. As a physician, you know how to meet a perfect stranger and establish a trust relationship in just a few minutes. Use those same skills with members of Congress, and you will be a successful advocate for your profession.

John T. Gill, MD, chairs the AAOS Advocacy Resource Committee.

AAOS issue summaries (member login required):
Tort Reform
The Access to America’s Orthopaedic Services (AAOS) Act
The Independent Payment Advisory Board
In-office Ancillary Service