Guest Editorial

Opportunity Knocks: Seize Your Chance to Make a Difference

January 18, 2017 09:30 am Richard Roberts, M.D., J.D.

When I was a first-year resident, my program director, Sanford Bloom, M.D., suggested I attend the AAFP's National Conference of Family Medicine Residents and Medical Students in Kansas City, Mo. Although I had a vague awareness of the Academy, mainly through its superb journals, I didn't know much about the organization itself. But Dr. Bloom was the editor of the California AFP's journal and an incredible leader, and I valued his opinion greatly, so when he said I would find the conference "interesting and worthwhile," I believed him.  

[Richard Roberts, M.D., J.D.]

Richard Roberts, M.D., J.D.

My life and career might have been vastly different if I had not.

National Conference was a three-ring circus -- but in the best possible way. There was interesting education, a residency fair and congresses for both students and residents. The event captured my imagination, particularly the idea that we trainees had the ability to discuss and develop resolutions that could influence AAFP policy and ultimately make our nation's health care system better.

It seems obvious to me now that experienced physicians must reach out to students and young physicians, or there won't be anyone to lead in the future. But I was stunned during that event when one of the AAFP officers asked my opinion about a resolution. Not only were AAFP leaders hearing our concerns, they were actively seeking our input. That experience had a huge impact on me. Ever since then, I've been sharing my opinions and actively encouraging others to share theirs.

I first served as a resident on the Academy's Commission on Legislative and Governmental Affairs (now the Commission on Governmental Advocacy). Like potato chips, I couldn't stop at just one: That experience led to the next, and the next, and the one after that.

I found volunteering for the Academy and family medicine to be interesting, meaningful and important. Here I was sitting with people who cared about the same issues that I did (such as health care access and social justice), who were good citizens, and who dedicated themselves to making their communities and our society better for all.

The AAFP's commissions bring together family physicians who are diverse in gender, race, skills, practice settings and geography. Every person brings something of value and contributes to a collective set of perspectives. There is passion, commitment and energy as people work together on difficult issues. It's incredibly rewarding.

I had no clear plan about leadership, but I learned valuable leadership lessons through participating. I served on a few AAFP commissions as a resident and new physician and later served as a delegate in the Congress of Delegates, which is the Academy's policy-making body. Ultimately, I served as president of the AAFP, the AAFP Foundation and Wonca, the World Organization of Family Doctors.

This isn't intended as a memoir, but rather a call to action. The AAFP's commissions will meet next month in Kansas City, Mo., to discuss important issues related to advocacy, education, member benefits, public health, practice improvement and more.

If you want to see how the Academy listens to its members, serving on a commission is just one of the many opportunities to be heard and to contribute. Dozens of family physicians each year are selected to provide invaluable input on commissions, based in part on chapter recommendations.

There are other ways to serve, and the Academy is actively seeking members interested in representing the AAFP on a variety of external work groups and committees, such as the National Quality Forum, the National Patient Safety Foundation and various federal advisory panels.

I urge you to participate. As a young physician, I had the opportunity to serve -- after being nominated by the AAFP -- on panels for the Agency for Health Care Policy and Research (the forerunner to what has become the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality). We were on the cutting edge of evidence-based medicine, and through that experience, I was able to help research, develop and teach new guidelines.

If you desire to make the world a better place and serve people, the AAFP allows you to do that. And along the way, you will receive support, skills development and inspiration that you would be unlikely to find on your own.

For me, that's meant meeting presidents, testifying in congressional hearings and traveling to amazing places around the nation and the world for family medicine. At the end of my professional life, I will look back and know that I was able to participate in incredible things I couldn't have imagined -- and would not have been able to do -- if it weren't for my involvement with the AAFP.

Family physicians make a huge difference every day in our exam rooms and communities. I thank you for your service. For those who dream of doing even more, your opportunity has arrived.

For information about getting more involved with the Academy, email senior strategist for health care quality Sandy Pogones

Richard Roberts, M.D., J.D., continues to serve his patients in Belleville, Wis., where he has practiced for more than 30 years. He is also a professor of family medicine at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in Madison.