The New Gastroenterologist

Advocating in a pandemic: A fellow’s perspective on AGA Advocacy Day


Gastroenterology fellowship is an exercise in balance. You are learning your way around different parts of the gastrointestinal tract, both cerebrally and anatomically. You are continuously taking care of patients, in the hospital and in the clinic. You attend all kinds of conferences, didactics, and webinars. And though the hours are long, the work is worth seeing a smile from even one patient for whom you have made a tangible difference in health care. Though these moments are priceless, how often they happen is often limited by access to care, health care disparities, and systemic injustice. Fighting for each one of our patients and their health is difficult for even the most seasoned physician. Training during the middle of a pandemic has brought health care disparities to the forefront; delays in colorectal cancer screening and postponements of nonurgent procedures will have downstream impacts. It was with these thoughts in mind that I decided to participate in AGA (American Gastroenterological Association) Advocacy Day in September 2020 as a gastroenterology fellow.

Dr. Bilal Asif is a gastroenterology fellow working with the University of Maryland and National Institutes of Health.

Dr. Bilal Asif

After close to 20 years of in-person Advocacy Days, the AGA decided to take its advocacy efforts to a virtual platform in the fall of 2020. The country remained in the throes of the worst pandemic it had seen in over a century, and social distancing efforts necessitated a different venue than previous years. This year’s online platform was designed to let individuals involved in gastroenterology health care join each other and discuss policies germane to our patients and our profession.

I have to confess that I did not have significant legislative experience, and I signed up for the virtual Advocacy Day with a sense of slight trepidation. Would I be prepared to talk to experts in the field? What did I know about health care policy on the granular level? How could I get across my message cogently and successfully? All I really knew was that I wanted to get engaged with a group of gastroenterologists early on in my career who were not only vociferous advocates for their patients at the bedside, but who were also able to actively support policy changes that would bring about systemic change.

As it turned out, I had nothing to worry about. This advocacy experience was designed for gastroenterology clinical providers to be able to talk intelligently about topics they knew well – research funding, colonoscopy costs, and different levels of therapy for patients with inflammatory bowel disease, among others. To provide an overview of public policy issues, the AGA prepared a legislative briefing book that allowed us to take a deep dive into these topics. I remember reviewing the issue briefs in detail, understanding that I did not need to be an expert but that familiarity with the issues would be a key component of having a successful meeting. I also completed an online advocacy training module that gave me insight into how and why I could advocate for my profession as a future gastroenterologist. Based on our congressional district and state, we were divided into groups of congressional advocates who would speak to specific congressional staff members. During our meetings, we had legislative staff available to help us navigate the finer points of public policy. Each member of my group chose a topic that was personally relevant to them. Throughout our sessions, we shared personal stories, dove in and out of virtual meeting rooms, and made sure we were clear in what we were advocating for.

As a second-year gastroenterology fellow working at the National Institutes of Health, I chose to focus on digestive diseases research funding for the research community. I talked to the congressional staff members about a patient I had seen earlier that year. He was a man in his mid-30s who was diagnosed with hepatitis C more than 10 years ago and was told, at the time of his diagnosis, that there were no good treatments for him. He had resigned himself to that fact until I saw him in my office and spoke to him about the remarkable advances in liver disease treatment that were made over the past few years. I talked to him about how Hepatitis C was a disease that could now be cured – the relief on his face was clear and only reaffirmed in me the understanding that research in digestive diseases has improved the health of our nation’s population through sustained research efforts in gastrointestinal cancers and other life-altering illnesses.

So what did I take away from this adventure in advocacy? Our role as gastroenterologists can go beyond treating one patient in one office in one hospital system at a time. We can effect change by addressing policies that we know are hurting our patients and their health. The learning curve is made much easier under the excellence of the AGA advocacy staff, who takes the time to gather resources and educate us on the specifics of relevant legislative policies, as well as of the congressional members with whom we are speaking. Our advice was sought after because, after years of training, we were the experts in this field. I was proud to have joined this grassroots network of engaged members to speak to our lawmakers. I can only imagine, in the years to come, how wonderful it would be to do this in person in our nation’s capital.

Dr. Asif is a gastroenterology fellow working with the University of Maryland and National Institutes of Health. He has no conflicts of interest to disclose.

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