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Good for the patient, good for the soul

Why health advocacy matters now more than ever

Within the medical community, the term “advocacy” is thrown around quite frequently in conversation. In general, there is agreement that health advocacy is important—but how many of us actually practice it?

In its simplest form, advocacy can be a gesture as small as helping a patient fill out their insurance forms. It can also mean fighting for policy changes at the highest levels of government. Having witnessed physicians and physician-trainees carry out initiatives across the health advocacy spectrum, it is with great conviction that I can assert that health advocacy represents what it truly means to uphold the values of being a physician. It is for this reason that I have chosen to make health advocacy, in all its forms, central to my medical practice.

Although I was born in Halifax, I spent most of my childhood growing up in Ghana, West Africa. My family and I moved back to Canada when I was almost 12 years-old.

Henry as a child.

I find 12 to be an interesting age—you are starting to see the world with new eyes, and beginning to form your own opinions of right versus wrong. For me, this process started in Ghana and was completed in Canada; the consequence was an inherent passion for global health and advocacy, which I hold to this day. Indeed, living in two vastly different countries with two vastly different approaches and attitudes towards healthcare has greatly influenced my perspective on high-quality healthcare delivery.

Less than a year into medical school, I had found a way to positively impact the Canadian healthcare system at the highest political level.

In my first year of medical school, I was appointed Global Health Advocate to represent Dalhousie University to the Canadian Federation of Medical Students (CFMS). As part of this work, I participated in the CFMS Federal Lobby Day, where, during a forum with federal policy-makers, I found myself making an economic and social justice case for universal Pharmacare. I was taken by surprise (and a little bit of pride) when Senator Jim Cowan, convinced by our lobbying, asked us to submit a question on the subject of Pharmacare to Question Period at the House of Commons. The question was read in January 2015, and sparked intense debate. As I watched that happen, I began to appreciate the platform I had been given simply by entering the profession of medicine. Less than a year into medical school, I had found a way to positively impact the Canadian healthcare system at the highest political level. I would go on to attend three more CFMS Federal Lobby Days, serve as the CFMS National Officer of Human Rights and Peace, and eventually became the CFMS president.

One of the most eye-opening experiences I had as a medical student was completing a “Health of the Homeless” elective during my fourth year of medical school. I had the opportunity to work closely with some of the most vulnerable members of our society. Hearing their stories and seeing firsthand how our healthcare system still fails large demographics of patients reaffirmed my responsibility to ensure that high-quality health care is delivered to the patients who need it the most.

Henry speaking with the FMEQ.

The experience reminded me of a speech then-Health Minister Dr. Jane Philpott gave at the Canadian Medical Association General Council in 2017. While addressing the crowd of doctors, she asked bluntly: “Who is responsible for the health of vulnerable peoples?” The answer was clear: we are. That responsibility is twofold: yes, we must make sure that our medical practices are customized to the unique needs of the vulnerable patient, but we must also use our platforms as physicians to push for change at a higher level.

Physicians and medical students should challenge themselves to figure out how they can become health advocates.

The truth is that health advocacy is a natural outcome of a good doctor-patient relationship. A good physician will invariably want the best for their patient, and will do everything they can to ensure that the care delivered is patient-centered. Empathizing with patients allows us to better understand their needs, and understanding their needs is what gives us the ability to propose ways to improving their healthcare.

While my interests in global health and policy allow for events like the CFMS Federal Lobby Day to be an obvious avenue for me to be an advocate, advocacy might come to life for someone else in a less conventional way. Physicians and medical students should challenge themselves to figure out how they can become health advocates outside the four walls of the office and hospital. It begins with acknowledging your privilege as a physician and finding creative ways to use your skills, talents, and passions to positively impact health outcomes—for your patients and for patients across the country.

The question becomes: how can your skill become an instrument of health advocacy? Answer that question and the possibilities for positive change are endless!

Volunteering as Advocacy

While it might seem counterintuitive to add even more hours to your calendar, research suggests that volunteering actually helps stave off physician burnout.


Henry Annan is a final year medical student at Dalhousie University and the current president of the Canadian Federation of Medical Students (CFMS). He has served as the CFMS National Officer for Human Rights and Peace, working to support grassroots global health initiatives as well as national lobbying campaigns. He is a previous director of the Health Association of African Canadians and a mentor to African Canadian youth in his native Halifax. His keen interest in global health and medical education will have him thriving during his paediatrics residency starting this July.