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Opportunities for Physicians to Give Back

Becoming a doctor opens up many opportunities to serve your community. From philanthropic activities to volunteer work, and political activism to organizational leadership, physicians serve a key role beyond their work in the doctor’s office or hospital. Surveys have indicated that over 90% of physicians believe that community participation, political involvement, and collective advocacy are important, regardless of specialty.1 The level of involvement in service is correlated with physician working hours, specialty, the percentage of uninsured or Medicare-insured patients in their care, and urban vs. rural practice, with rural practitioners tending to be more active than urban ones. As social trust in the medical profession declines, there have been calls for physicians to refocus their efforts on civic participation, and few professions are better suited for helping those around them.2 Here are some examples of the opportunities for community involvement available to doctors.

Charity care, or pro bono healthcare, is the practice of providing treatment as a physician for free.3 While many physicians provide charity care within regular clinical practice in a manner that usually goes unreported, pro bono work also often occurs through organizations.4 Although the Affordable Care Act reduced the number of people who are completely uninsured, Free and Charitable Clinics continue to provide a vital safety net in America’s healthcare system.5 There are undoubtedly several ways to get involved in pro bono work, and many specialties have specific organizations focused on connecting physicians with volunteer opportunities.

Providing unpaid teaching to medical students, medical personnel, and the public is another service that physicians volunteer. According to one survey, nearly 54% of practicing physicians provide unpaid teaching, both in office/outpatient settings and in hospitals.6 Physicians can give health-related teaching to civic organizations or the general public on various topics, such as public health. This kind of work can strengthen the relationship between the public and healthcare professionals.

Another way physicians can volunteer is to take on leadership roles in community-focused projects or organizations. Nearly a quarter of physician volunteers report serving as an organizational leader (such as on a board of directors).7 While physicians can be found in leadership roles in organizations that are both health-care related and not, many physicians will dedicate their time to organizations or projects that benefit public health. For example, a national program called Reach Out was developed in 1993 to recruit practicing physicians as leaders of projects to care for the uninsured and underserved. In the end, thirty-nine projects were implemented across the United States, with 11,252 physicians recruited, servicing 199,584 patients.8 Taking on leadership roles in projects such as these is a powerful way to contribute to community and national health.

For those who want to dedicate their time to addressing particular health or political issues, many physician-created and led organizations work to mobilize health professionals. Many of them are nationwide and have chapters in different cities. For example, Physicians for Social Responsibility was founded in 1961 in response to the public health crisis around the development and testing of nuclear weapons.9 Pediatricians and dentists banded together to perform a study that documented the presence of the highly radioactive waste product Strontim-90 in children’s baby teeth. This finding led to the ban that ended atmospheric nuclear testing.10 With local chapters forming starting in the 1970s, there are now over 23 chapters in 20 states where physicians use their expertise in medicine and public health to “protect human life from the gravest threats to health and survival,” such as nuclear weapons policy, climate change, and environmental health.11 There are countless organizations out there to join, providing the opportunity to impact whatever issue moves you to action.

Thank you for reading,

Ashby Glover



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