Opinion

Canadian medical students are embracing advocacy

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the many fault lines in our health-care system and highlighted the need for medical advocacy. Health-care professionals have stepped up and called for action to address racism and inequity in health care, workplaces, institutions and systems.

Even medical students, still early in their training journeys, have been moved by the immediacy of current issues and have taken up the cries for action.

Advocacy is a familiar concept to Canadian medical students; many of us were initially drawn to medicine by a motivation to alleviate suffering. Yet there has been a historical lack of formal curricular experiences that prepare trainees to effectively engage in advocacy.

Medical training is marked by rites of passage: stethoscope ceremonies, the donning of white coats, recitations of oaths to be altruistic clinicians. As students develop their professional identities, they also begin to embody the core roles of medical expert, scholar and, increasingly, advocate. It is imperative, however, that we move beyond “advocate” as a professional identity to “advocacy” as an action.

Previous generations of medical students created opportunities for grassroots advocacy training and lobbying policymakers on topics of relevance to the medical community. While this work remains vitally important, there is also a growing need for advocacy in broader contexts.

Advocacy must be accessible and not limited to “career advocates” who lead the charge. Medical trainees, even without the backing of an official committee or organization, can be a part of mobilizing people to action. 

The Black Medical Students’ Association at the University of Toronto is a key example. With a team of more than 70 medical students from across the country, the association co-authored a guide to applying to medical school in Canada to help people from underrepresented communities who may lack connections or mentors. Similarly, three students from Queen’s University sought to document how dermatology lectures rarely used images of people with darker skin tones; more than 120 students helped to audit course materials and push for curriculum reform.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, there has also been an increase in open-letter campaigns from advocacy organizations, lobbying groups and, interestingly, unaffiliated groups of students who are simply passionate about issues facing their communities. For example, after months of inaction during a deadly third wave, we gathered a team of students at McMaster and wrote an open letter advocating for an accessible provincial paid sick leave program available to all Ontario workers. 

Within days, our letter received more than 700 signatures from fellow medical students. We were featured in multiple interviews and our editorial demanding action reached thousands. These efforts helped revitalize the conversation on paid sick leave in Ontario and pushed the legislature toward implementing broader change.

The face of advocacy is changing. Medical students are realizing that they have both the power and responsibility to advocate for change within their institutions and within their communities. 

As we don our white coats and stethoscopes and enter the field of medicine, we reaffirm our commitment to improving our patients’ health. Moving forward, we contend that this need not be limited to the walls of the hospital; rather, even as medical students we can be advocates for issues that are facing our patients and colleagues. One only needs the ability to put pen to paper, identify the policies that matter, and gather like-minded peers to incite actionable and meaningful change.

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Authors

Connie Li

Contributor

Connie Li is a medical student at McMaster University, where she co-leads the Social Justice Interest Group and McMaster Political Advocacy Committee. As a health humanities proponent, she is interested in the role of journalism and narrative storytelling in medical education.

Arjun Pandey

Contributor

Arjun Pandey is a medical student at McMaster University and research student at the Population Health Research Institute. His interests include advocacy and astronomy.

Rishi Bansal

Contributor

Rishi Bansal is a medical student at McMaster University, co-founder of the storytelling initiative Faces of COVID, and a deputy editor at Healthy Debate. He is interested in health systems leadership, advocacy, and innovation.

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