Association of Academic Physiatrists
Q&A with Ellia Ciammaichella, DO, JD
Physiatrist at St. Luke's Rehabilitation Institute and Member of the AAP’s Public Policy Committee
How did you get started in your advocacy efforts?
I have been an advocate since I was three years old when my brother would only speak to me and I would relay his needs to my parents. But in all seriousness, since law was my first career and medicine is my second career, I vowed to continue my advocacy efforts in medicine on both an individual level with every patient as well as on a more broad level for people with disabilities and our profession. As a medical student, I first ventured into organized medicine as a student leader in the Student Osteopathic Medical Association. Then in residency I became involved with the residency senate, local medical societies and the American Medical Association.
What skills learned during your medical training have helped you in your advocacy efforts? What new skills did you have to develop?
My motto during training is you get out what you put in. In this respect, I volunteered with various organizations and that is where I learned how to be an advocate. The most memorable moment was when I was speaking about the needs of people with disabilities to a group of physicians and they were listening. I was a resident physician and the other physicians were mainly attendings. Did I mention that they were listening? That was when I learned that physiatry is unrepresented in medicine and that the voices of trainees can be heard and are meaningful.
What challenges have you encountered?
Changes in policy take a long time. It makes it hard to feel like you have made a lasting contribution.
Why do you serve on the AAP's Public Policy Committee?
Sometimes an advocate is a listener. Sometimes an advocate is a disseminator of information. Sometimes an advocate is on the steps of Congress. So, my goal in serving on the AAP’s Public Policy Committee is to take part in all aspects of advocacy by listening, thinking, sharing and doing.
How have you seen advocacy change over the past couple of years?
Often it feels like organizations are not “doing” anything, but the work is often difficult to see because changing policy is a slow process. In addition, emails are very impersonal and one sided so it is not always the best mode to create a dialogue with members. For these reasons, advocacy in medicine has grown significantly in the social media realm.
Should all physicians be active advocates? Why?
Being a physiatrist naturally lends its self to advocacy and I don’t think it’s a stretch to think that most physiatrists are advocates. Some physiatrists go beyond advocating for the patient in front of them. Some physiatrists are advocates in their role as coach of a little league, PTA president, humane society volunteer and the like. Other physiatrists are advocacy supporters as members of medical organizations. Then there are those physiatrists who are volunteers of committees, writing letters of support to other organizations, or knocking on doors in Congress. Each role is vital to advocacy efforts and essential to move physiatry forward.
What advice would you give to someone just starting out?
Choose a subject that moves you. Then research, research, and research. Ask around and you will find someone who you could work with to get it done. And remind yourself that even if you think you failed, you didn’t. You learn from stumbling blocks and grow with patience. You can’t accomplish something without trying.
Anything else you’d like to add?
We should work to incorporate an advocacy curriculum in medical school and residency. Feel free to contact me to brainstorm ideas!