Edward P. Ehlinger, MD, MSPH

Sept 2020 Advocacy Champion

Ed Ehlinger1. Why is being an advocate so important to you?

I believe that inequities in health are an existential threat to our society and the inequities are mostly due to the social and environmental conditions in which people live.  Because of that, physicians must be advocates not just for their patients, but for improving the conditions in the communities in which their patients live.  Dr. Rudolf Virchow, one of the giants of medical care, said:  "Medicine is a social science, and politics is nothing else but medicine on a large scale... physicians are the natural attorneys of the poor, and the social problems should largely be solved by them.”  Advocacy is part of what it means to be a physician.  Abraham Flexner also made that point when he said:  “…the physician’s function is fast becoming social and  preventive, rather than individual and curative… directly or indirectly, disease has been found to depend largely on unpropitious environment…and (these) are matters for ‘social regulation,’ and doctors have the duty to promote social conditions that conduce to physical well-being.”  Being an advocate is part of our duty.

2. What health-care related issue(s) have you advocated for over the past year?
  • Maternal and Infant Mortality:  I chair the federal Secretary's Advisory Committee on Infant Mortality (SACIM) which is charged with making recommendations to the Health and Human Services Secretary on how to reduce infant and maternal mortality.  This aligns with my life-long work in the field of maternal and child health.  In June SACIM made recommendations on how to protect and improve the care of pregnant women and infants during the COVID-19 pandemic.  
  • Voting:  Voting is a public health issue in that it impacts our overall health. Where voting participation is higher, health is better.  When people are disenfranchised from voting, their health suffers. Voting suppression is being used to keep People of Color from exercising their civic rights.  This is a major equity issue.  I've been working with the Langeloth Foundation as a member of their board to get funding to community groups working on get-out-the-vote and safe voting activities.  I'm also working with the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO) to link state health officials with state Secretaries of State or state voting directors to make sure voting is safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.  I've also written several blog posts and commentaries on voting as a public health issue.
  • Other issues of health equity:  I'm engaged in multiple efforts locally and nationally to address inequities in criminal justice, transportation, education, and nutrition.  Addressing systemic racism is at the core of that work.
3. What advice would you offer to others who are interested in advocacy?
Advocacy is an essential part of being a physician.  There are issues in every community that need to be addressed in order to improve the health of the people in those communities.  Physicians have a role to play in addressing those issues.  Regardless of one's specialty or practice location, there is a need for the voice of physicians in the policy decisions in one's community that must be made. Since there is health in all policies, it doesn't matter what issue one takes on.  Health equity work is necessary in all policy areas. Use your advocate's voice with the school board, the parent/teacher organization, the soccer league, the city council, your church/mosque/synagogue, the neighborhood association, etc.  This is where building the capacity of communities to create their own healthy future begins.