|A Voice for Grady
Students campaign to save a hospital
By Martha Nolan McKenzie
The commissioners voted to approve the nonprofit agreement that was critical in ensuring the beleaguered public hospital’s survival. This past spring, the Fulton-DeKalb Hospital Authority approved restructuring Grady’s management as a nonprofit board, clearing the way for a promised influx of $200 million and preventing the hospital’s closure. A small but dedicated group of students can claim some of the credit for that victory.
“HealthSTAT has been a pivotal force in the Grady discussion,” says Arthur Kellermann, associate dean for health policy in Emory’s medical school. “I have seen national professional associations with multi-million-dollar budgets that are not nearly as well organized, focused, and disciplined as HealthSTAT. I’m still trying to figure out where they learned this.”
The organization got its start in 2001, when a handful of medical students from Emory and Morehouse got into a discussion about the problems of people who lack insurance. They decided they could make a difference through advocacy, and their first effort was a candlelight vigil to raise awareness of the plight of the uninsured.
From those humble roots, HealthSTAT has grown into a sophisticated lobbying/advocacy nonprofit with student members from across health professions, including nursing, pharmacy, physical therapy, and public health, from five Georgia schools. The group honed its focus on three issues: health disparities and access to care, childhood obesity, and HIV/AIDS.
When the survival of debt-plagued Grady fell into jeopardy last year, HealthSTAT took on the cause in trademark fashion. Before they launched their first effort, they organized an information-gathering panel composed of Grady stakeholders and decision-makers, including the Fulton County commissioners, state legislators, and Grady’s chief of medicine.
“We wanted to bring a variety of perspectives together to educate students on what was at stake, who the stakeholders were, what challenges faced Grady, and what solutions were possible,” says Kate Neuhausen, 08M, who co-coordinated HealthSTAT’s Grady campaign as a fourth-year medical student. “We were overwhelmed by the student turnout. More than 200 students were involved.”
One of the group’s first moves set the tone for the entire campaign. Up to that point, public discussion had centered on “saving” Grady. “We didn’t want to portray the hospital as something that needed saving. We wanted a message that conveyed the strength of Grady and how vital it is not just to Atlanta but to the state,” says Neuhausen.
The students came up with a slogan, and the campaign was off and running. HealthSTAT printed 4,000 “Grady Is Vital” buttons and passed them out to students, faculty, employees, Atlanta Chamber of Commerce members, and county and state officials. They printed and mailed 5,000 postcards with the names and numbers of Fulton and DeKalb commissioners, urging people to call in their support of Grady. They organized a letter-writing campaign and delivered—in front of the media—more than 500 handwritten letters to Georgia’s governor, lieutenant governor, and house speaker. And they organized a rally attended by 350 students, residents, and faculty.
HealthSTAT ran training sessions for its members to teach them how to effectively meet with county officials and legislators. It armed its members with concise, sophisticated fact sheets detailing different facets of Grady’s role—as the only Level 1 trauma center for Atlanta and North Georgia, as a safety net for indigent patients, as the training ground for one out of every four doctors in the state. And it organized student- and resident-run tours of Grady for legislators. After attending one of the tours, Rep. Edward Lindsey told fellow legislators that it was the most eye-opening experience of his four years in the state legislature, according to Andrew Kobylivker, 03M, an internal medicine resident and Grady tour organizer.
And, of course, HealthSTAT members turned out in force at the Fulton and DeKalb commission votes on the fate of Grady. “Much of their strength comes from the fact that they don’t play to the stereotype of lobbyists,” says Kellermann. “They are young, idealistic, committed, and broke. They are naturally sympathetic. You can’t saddle them with any special-interest motives. You can just be amazed that they took time out from their demanding schedules to come out to speak. That is what made them so powerful.”
Even though Grady is governed by the new nonprofit board and has received funds for capital equipment from the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation, HealthSTAT’s efforts are not through. “We see Grady as the canary in the coal mine,” says Neuhausen. “Grady is in crisis because of the crisis of the uninsured in Georgia. We’ll continue advocating for Grady but also for larger issues that have contributed to the crisis at public hospitals.”