Canadian Medical Association

For many Canadians, health care is a big ballot box issue. A pre-election poll in Ontario − conducted by Ipsos Reid −  had forty per cent of respondents choosing health care as their top election issue. In Nova Scotia last October, the provincial election featured leadership debates with crowds waving signs saying “More doctors!”. And with a federal election in 2019, the time has never been better for Canadian physicians and medical students to gain support for their ideas on how to make health care better.

With this in mind, the CMA has revamped its advocacy coaching program to help physicians build the skills and knowledge they need to be effective advocates. Since January, the team has visited 15 medical schools across Canada, and is expanding their reach this fall with a session for the BC Pediatric Society. We sat down with Holly Duggan and Kelsey Shein, the program trainers, to talk in more detail.

“The anatomy of advocacy”: The heart of the program 
The core of the 90-minute introductory program is what Duggan and Shein call the “anatomy of advocacy”, a five-step process for building an effective advocacy campaign. Using recent CMA examples – such as seniors care – the team runs through the process, and then turns it over to participants to test drive their own ideas, from pharmacare to free parking at hospitals to mobile clinics. The goal of the exercise is to leave participants with a menu of tactics they can use to put their own ideas forward.

Starting with a clear goal in mind
Off the bat, participants usually find their goal is too broad, so the advocacy team works on helping narrow it down. “We ask participants: Yes, you have a clear problem you’re trying to fix, but what exactly are you trying to achieve?” explains Duggan. Whether it’s simply bringing awareness to an issue, or making policy or legislative changes, each goal has specific considerations that participants need to understand.

The best place to start is in your backyard
Participants are often convinced they need a meeting with the Health Minister to propose a policy change. Shein and Duggan urge participants to consider their local MP first: “Your MP can take your story back to Ottawa and connect with others who are hearing the same thing in their ridings or can share their own ideas for solutions. That’s often how the seed for change gets planted,” explains Duggan.

Getting involved should not be intimidating 
Many participants don’t recognize how easy it is to approach political leaders. Duggan and Shein point out that hearing from constituents is as a critical part of their job. “Don’t forget that at the end of the day, they want to meet with you and to know the gaps and issues you’re seeing on a daily basis,” says Duggan. The advocacy team also encourages participants to consider different ways of getting face-to-face time with their MP: attending a summer BBQ or fundraiser can be just as effective as a formal meeting.

Don’t overlook the power of story-telling
Participants often ask how many policy papers they should bring to their meetings with MPs. The answer? None. They say what often has the biggest impact is when physicians can share a real-life experience from their practice or their patients that illustrates the need for change. “A parliamentarian can’t share raw data the same way they can share a story. A story is what pulls at the heartstrings and can change the minds of Canadians,” explains Shein.

What the CMA team brings to the table
After nine years working for MPs and Senators on Parliament Hill, Duggan has attended hundreds of stakeholder meetings, and has an insiders’ view of what works and what doesn’t. “Physicians bring with them so much knowledge and research. With the [advocacy] program, it’s often about helping them craft their message politically, and not just from a policy perspective, so that it really resonates with decision-makers,” says Duggan.

Shein’s career has ranged from running an MP’s constituency office in Kelowna to heading a voter outreach team on a national leadership campaign. As part of the advocacy team, she always brings it back to the importance of building a relationship with your local MP. “That doesn’t mean you have to become their best friend. But a personal connection is so important, and it’s typically built in person, and not through emails.”

​The introduction to advocacy coaching program is currently offered by request. For more information on scheduling a session, please email [email protected].

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