Hospitalists around the country are devoting large portions of their spare time to a wide range of advocacy efforts. From health policy to caring for the unhoused population to diversity and equity to advocating for fellow hospitalists, these physicians are passionate about their causes and determined to make a difference.
Championing the unhoused
Sarah Stella, MD, FHM, a hospitalist at Denver Health, was initially drawn there because of the population the hospital serves, which includes a high concentration of people experiencing homelessness. As she cared for her patients, Dr. Stella, who is also associate professor of hospital medicine at the University of Colorado, increasingly felt the desire to help prevent the negative downstream outcomes the hospital sees.
To understand the experiences of the unhoused outside the hospital, Dr. Stella started talking to her patients and people in community-based organizations that serve this population. “I learned a ton,” she said. “Homelessness feels like such an intractable, hopeless thing, but the more I talked to people, the more opportunities I saw to work toward something better.”
This led to a pilot grant to work with the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless to set up a community advisory panel. “My goal was to better understand their experiences and to develop a shared vision for how we collectively can do better,” said Dr. Stella. Eventually, she also received a grant from the University of Colorado, and multiple opportunities have sprung up ever since.
For the past several years, Dr. Stella has worked with Denver Health leadership to improve care for the homeless. “Right now, I’m working with a community team on developing an idea to provide peer support from people with a shared lived experience for people who are experiencing homelessness when they’re hospitalized. That’s really where my passion has been in working on the partnership,” she said.
Her advocacy role has been beneficial in her work as a hospitalist, particularly when COVID began. Dr. Stella again partnered with the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless to start a joint task force. “Everyone on our task force is motivated by this powerful desire to improve the health and lives of this community and that’s one of the silver linings in this pandemic for me,” said Dr. Stella.
Advocacy work has also increased Dr. Stella’s knowledge of what community support options are available for the unhoused. This allows her to educate her patients about their options and how to access them.
While she has colleagues who are able to compartmentalize their work, “I absolutely could not be a hospitalist without being an advocate,” Dr. Stella said. “For me, it has been a protective strategy in terms of burnout because I have to feel like I’m working to advocate for better policies and more appropriate resources to address the gaps that I’m seeing.”
Dr. Stella believes that physicians have a special credibility to advocate, tell stories, and use data to back their stories up. “We have to realize that we have this power, and we have it so we can empower others,” she said. “The people I’ve seen in my community who are working so hard to help people who are experiencing homelessness are the heroes. Understanding that and giving power to those people through our voice and our well-respected place in society drives me.”