Reflections of a Rutherford-Lavanty Fellow

Michael Johnson MDMichael T. Johnson, MD, a Body MRI Fellow at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and 2019 ACR Rutherford-Lavanty Fellow, contributed this post.

As I wind down my busy week in Washington D.C., I can’t help but marvel at the volume of information I am tasked with processing.

First, I am incredibly thankful for the opportunity to spend time with the ACR’s exceptional Government Relations staff as a Rutherford-Lavanty Fellow. I have long held an interest in advocacy, but seeing the inner-workings of D.C. firsthand truly gave me an appreciation for the degree to which our organization supports both radiologists and patients. Our staff are both knowledgeable and clever, understanding the issues inside and out, and also knowing how to drive the changes we would like to see on Capitol Hill. If I am able to leave this week and retain just a fraction of their knowledge and tact, I truly believe my patients and I will be in a better place as we look to the future.

It should perhaps come as no surprise that health care continues to remain front-and-center on Capitol Hill – an astounding 69% of respondents in a 2019 Pew Research Center poll named health care as a top priority for the president and congress. Sure enough, I arrived during Congress’s first week back in session as the buzz on surprise medical bills was approaching a peak.

Patients are occasionally hit with surprise bills when they are unexpectedly cared for by out-of-network physicians. While most people on both sides of the aisle agree that patients should not be held accountable in these situations, some proposed legislation would have the consequence of putting insurers interests above the interests of physicians on the fiscal side of the issue.

Fear not – we, and other physician groups, urged our legislators to consider proposals that would at least level the playing field between physicians and insurers. Many of these proposals are modeled on New York’s 2014 legislation studied by the Georgetown University Health Policy Institute.

While surprise billing occupied a lot of our attention during my week-long visit, I also had the opportunity to speak with legislative assistants and legislators about the Protecting Access to Livesaving Screenings (PALS) Act and the Resident Education Deferred Interest (REDI) Act. The PALS Act would protect access to screening mammography for women beginning at the age of 40, something which has been threatened on a near annual basis since the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) provided its recommendations on screening mammography in 2009. The REDI Act would allow new physicians to defer their medical student loan interest during residency and fellowship training. As part of a dual PGY-6 family, I can confidently report that the math adds up (as always) and that this bill has the potential to save individual trainees tens of thousands of dollars in the long term.

One of the most significant takeaways from this week was the importance of building relationships with our patients, colleagues, advocates and legislators. Just like building trust with our patients helps us provide exceptional care, building trust with individuals who have the ability to affect meaningful policy change allows us to improve health care on a larger scale.

As physicians, this rings particularly true because being the physician in the room matters. At separate events, while surrounded by one-to-two dozen other people, Representatives Terri Sewell and Katherine Clark sought me out specifically for my input on health care issues because of my position as a physician caring for patients in this country.

Most physicians probably know this, but a reminder shouldn’t hurt: your MD or DO matters. The credentials carry credibility. The credentials carry influence. You probably went into significant student loan debt and gave up your twenties, maybe even your thirties, because you care about your patients and people understand that.

We often debate and worry about the factors in health care that contribute to the erosion of the patient-physician relationship, but physicians still consistently score as one of the most trusted professions in America. That trust lends great strength to your voice in advocating for your patients and your profession.

If you are reading this brief blog, you are already ahead of the curve. You have already demonstrated at least a small interest in learning about radiology advocacy (aka #radvocacy).

I urge you to get involved with your local and state radiological societies and with our American College of Radiology. Please try to read the Advocacy in Action e-newsletters to stay up-to-date on the vital goings-on in local and national politics.

Please consider donating to RADPAC. Please also consider applying to be a future Rutherford-Lavanty Fellow through the ACR or through your state if you’d like to take a deeper dive into advocacy and the work the ACR is doing for you and your patients. Finally, please try to remember: physician advocacy matters. Your voice matters.

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