Association of Academic Physiatrists
Q&A with Richard Wilson, MD, MS
Vice Chair and Division Director of Neurological Rehabilitation at MetroHealth System, Associate Professor at Case Western Reserve University and Member of the AAP’s Public Policy Committee
How did you get started in your advocacy efforts?
I’ve always had a personality that compels me to try to fix problems that I see. As a physiatrist, I have come to realize that people with disabilities face many challenges that could be fixed through raising awareness and providing practical solutions leaders can support. Through the American Medical Rehabilitation Providers Association (AMRPA), I had my first experience going to Capitol Hill to meet with my state legislators to improve access to rehabilitative care and to request support for rehabilitation research. The AMRPA provided training and logistical support that allowed me to gain experience with much less stress than if I had been on my own. It was a great way to learn how to be an effective advocate.
What skills learned during your medical training have helped you in your advocacy efforts? What new skills have you had to develop?
Physiatrists don’t realize that their greatest assets in advocacy are their expertise and their experience with their patients. Legislators and their staff may not understand well the effects of a disabling injury or illness and physiatrists can provide a bit of education and pair it with an anecdote. Once the legislator can understand the problem on a personal level, it becomes easier to ask for, and receive, their support. It takes a bit of planning - physiatrists need to be prepared so that introductions, a personal story to illustrate the problem, and the request can be delivered in a few minutes. Legislators and their staff are busy so the conversation must be focused.
What challenges have you encountered?
Most people are uncomfortable when they first start meeting with legislators because it’s very different than anything encountered in their medical training or practice, but that is easily overcome by preparation and diving in. It’s worth noting that legislators and their staffers typically do not understand medicine and rehabilitation, which can be awkward when trying to explain complex medical disabilities in an understandable way. It’s important to enter the conversation thinking in lay terms that anyone can understand. In my experience, the staff members are very engaged and try hard to understand the concerns that are brought to them and usually catch on quickly, but jargon should be avoided.
Why do you serve on the AAP’s Public Policy Committee?
I started out my research career in health services research (HSR), which is a discipline that seeks to identify the most effective ways to organize, manage, finance, and deliver high-quality care. The training I received in HSR put me in the right mindset to think about how to improve the healthcare system to better serve my patients. I felt that the AAP’s Public Policy Committee would give me the opportunity to work with other physiatrists with complementary skills to advance the priorities important to those with disabilities. I was motivated to contribute to the causes important to the AAP rather than having my own personal cause.
How have you seen advocacy change over your career?
One of the biggest changes is the use of social media for advocacy. It’s an effective tool for organizing, mobilizing, and getting your message out to many people.
Should all physicians be active advocates? Why?
I believe that all physiatrists should be advocates for their patients, which can take many forms. We all chose this career to help people and I don’t think that is limited to the clinical setting. Advocacy can happen in the offices of legislators, through raising awareness, in the hospital in which you are employed, or in the community in which you live. If we all work together, doing big things and small things, we’ll collectively make a difference for the better.
What advice would you give to someone just starting out?
Every physiatrist can be an advocate - whether it is for individual patients they care for or for a larger population. Use your expertise and experience with patients to leverage the healthcare system to provide better care for those with disabilities. It’s important for society and can be personally rewarding. What is a better legacy than making a positive difference?