Saturday, February 24, 2018

Faster, Higher, Stronger: Advocate like an Olympian


As I watched the XXXI Summer Olympic Games, it occurred to me that there are analogies between Olympic competition and pain policy advocacy. Academy members are, like Olympic competitors, the world’s experts in what they do. Policymakers rarely have more than the most rudimentary knowledge of what is involved in providing good pain care, and they would do well to rely on our expert advice more often. Giving legislators and regulators the information they need to create good policy is what our policy and advocacy efforts are all about. So, how can you, our “Olympic pain policy advocates,” win a gold medal?

Our “Olympic program” of advocacy: In 2016, the Academy’s policy and advocacy department, the State Pain Policy Advocacy Network (SPPAN), tracked nearly 1,600 pieces of legislation and 400 regulations. Clearly, there is no shortage of issues for us to address. The good news is that we have a resource that enables us to efficiently find issues and categorize them by state, by policy area, or by both at the same time. Our policy tracker, which you can find at, shows what we are watching across the nation. You can find out what policies are active in your state by visiting

To tie into our Olympic analogy, each policy proposal found in this tracker is like an individual event in the Olympics, and as advocates, you can be part of our team as we try to “win” that event.

Can you be a gold medal advocate?

While our staff responds to dozens of policy proposals on behalf of Academy members, there are some issues for which we really need a concerted effort involving you, the Academy’s Advocacy

Olympic team. In those cases, we will reach out to you (and to other members of SPPAN, including other professional organizations, patient advocates, and more) with Action Alerts, asking that you communicate with regulators or your elected officials. We try to make responding to these Action Alerts as easy as possible, because we know everyone is busy and that there may not be time to do more than just send a quick email expressing your position. But, there clearly are levels of advocacy activity, which I think of in terms of the gold/silver/bronze medal scheme used in the Olympics.

Gold medal advocates are those whose efforts are the best and most effective. To earn a gold medal in advocacy, I think a face-to-face conversation with a policymaker is required. Having such a direct contact often takes a bit of work, and may also involve some travel. In the case of federal legislators and regulators, this can mean a visit to offices on Capitol Hill or elsewhere in Washington, and for state policymakers, it can often mean a trip to the state capital. These visits often require advance scheduling to ensure that the policymaker or his or her staffers are available. However, there may be opportunities that require less effort. Many elected officials hold meetings with constituents during the times when they are in the district, rather than in Washington or the state capital. These in-district sessions provide opportunities to have the personal attention of legislators with fewer of the distractions that occur when legislatures are in session. Many times, notices for these meetings will be found on legislators’ websites, but in other cases, it may take a phone call to their offices. Another form of personal contact that can make you a gold medalist is testifying at a legislative or regulatory hearing. The policy tracker I referenced above is updated regularly, and information about upcoming hearings can be found there. Additionally, if we are looking for advocates who can testify at a hearing, it will be part of our Action Alert. Rest assured—if you want to testify at a hearing on an issue we are tracking, we’ll be delighted to help you prepare for it!

Silver medal advocacy requires a telephone conversation with the policymaker we are targeting. Telephone calls indicate that the advocate is invested enough in the issue to find the telephone number, and to take the time to place a call. They also involve an element of a personal interaction, albeit one that is not as direct as when the advocate and policymaker meet face-to-face. Actually speaking to the policymaker, rather than just to a staffer, requires a bit of work and a certain amount of art. Policymakers are busy people, and if they can delegate something to a staffer, they will. However, they also recognize that they work for their constituents, so if a constituent requests direct contact with the policymaker, an effort generally will be made to set up that contact. This is especially true for state legislators. The trick is this: when you call the office, introduce yourself (and use your professional title, such as “doctor,” whenever possible) and ask to speak to the legislator. If the legislator is unavailable, leave a message indicating the issue about which you are calling, and ask that the legislator call you back to discuss your concerns. This won’t always work, but you’d be surprised how often it succeeds!

Winning a bronze medal for advocacy really is something that everyone should be able to do—it involves the simple act of sending an email to express your opinion. When we send Action Alerts, we use a program that makes it incredibly easy for you to generate an email to the policymaker. All you will need to do is to click on the hyperlink in our Action Alert, enter your name and ZIP+4 code, and click “send.” Generally, you will have an opportunity to personalize your message a bit, and we encourage you to do so, but that’s not an absolute necessity. Emails received on an issue typically are tallied in a policymaker’s office, and that tally helps determine his or her position, but it’s a lot easier to ignore an email than it is to ignore a constituent who takes the time to call or visit the office.

When we send an Action Alert (sign up here), we’re hoping that every Academy member who receives it will at least put in a bronze medal effort, but we’re really hoping that we can hand out a silver or, best of all, a gold medal. We’ll give you as much support as possible if you “go for the gold,” because we know that, unlike us, you don’t do this every day. I hope that, if you make that effort, you’ll discover the little secret we have—that it can really be a LOT of fun! Who knows—maybe we’ll even play the national anthem and raise the flag for you!

One response

  1. Linda Olds
    September 19, 2016 at 1:14 pm

    I am both a pharmacist and a pain patient. I was forced to retire from a job that I enjoyed because of my osteoarthritis pain. It has been difficult to resign myself to being a patient instead of helping others.
    As a patient, I have felt that doctors (other than pain management specialists), pharmacists, nurses, and the general public often think of me as an addict. I hide my opioid use as much as possible, and would love to get off of the meds if there were another way to treat my pain.
    Recently, I find that the government is limiting my pain meds, and the media is making chronic opiate users sound like addicts.
    Is there anything I can do (research, media, education, etc) to help this situation in general and my situation in particular?
    I am trying to decrease my opiate use, but it truly works better than anything else I’ve found.

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About Bob Twillman, PhD, Executive Director of The American Academy of Pain Management