- Kenny Lin, MD, MPH
Shaping local and national policies to improve patients' health outcomes is an appropriate and important role for family physicians. For the past several years, I have taught public health and advocacy skills to medical students, and last month, I attended Academy Health's National Health Policy conference in Washington, DC, for the first time. Although the majority of participants were researchers or policy analysts, family physicians were well-represented as medical directors, public health and insurance officials, and leaders of privately funded community health improvement projects.
In a previous blog post, I discussed the concept of assessing social determinants of health through "community vital signs," geocoded and individually linked data derived from public data sources. Although American Family Physician focuses on health interventions that clinicians provide in offices, emergency rooms, hospitals, and long-term care facilities, it also publishes resources to help family physicians improve social determinants outside of health care settings. For example, a 2014 editorial examined the role of the family physician in preventing and managing adverse childhood experiences, and a review article in the February 1 issue discussed implications for physicians of childhood bullying.
Previous editorials and articles have addressed environmental health hazards such as lead, radon, air pollution and climate change, and a 2011 Letter to the Editor urged family physicians to take action to affect the built environment of American communities by "working to ensure that our patients have safe, convenient, and enjoyable places to walk, run, and bike." Other public health issues where physician advocacy can make a positive difference include food insecurity, homelessness, and firearm safety.
Family physicians are often first responders to natural and unnatural disasters in their communities. From influenza pandemics to bioterrorism, preparedness and early recognition is essential to protecting our patients. A 2015 editorial argued that the rapid spread of infectious diseases and migration and displacement of diverse populations have made global health knowledge essential for every family physician, regardless of location: "As the recent Ebola epidemic demonstrated, the world is not only smaller than ever, but it is also more intricately connected. Exotic diseases once confined to the third or developing world are now everyone's concern. Global has truly become local." For example, clinicians are likely to encounter victims of sex trafficking and labor trafficking in their practices.
AFP's sister publication, FPM, also provides resources for primary care clinicians with community and public health roles, from launching a community-wide flu vaccination plan, to following the Grand Junction, Colorado example of improving health system cost and quality outcomes, to working with community-based senior organizations. Finally, family medicine advocates can stay abreast of national initiatives that will shape the specialty's future, such as direct primary care, the patient-centered medical home, and the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act (MACRA).