|They have a dream
By Kate Neuhausen and Anjli Aurora
On the wall of our 7’ x 11’ office is a quote by Maryanne Radmacher: “Stand often in the company of dreamers; they tickle your common sense and believe you can achieve things which are impossible.” Stacked against the walls are boxes of T-shirts for our Cover the Uninsured Week, bags of buttons for the Grady Is Vital campaign, and bins with plastic food models for a nutrition and physical activity program we organize in the community. On the desk is a stack of Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspapers with a front-page article about HealthSTAT and our grassroots campaign to mobilize hundreds of Georgia students and residents to save Grady Hospital. The headline reads “Their First Patient? Health Care.”
HealthSTAT, or Health Students Taking Action Together, is a student-run, nonprofit organization founded seven years ago at Emory. With a mission to create a statewide community of health professional students crossing disciplines and engaging in education, advocacy, and service, we are the only organization of this kind in the nation. Our focus is on HIV/AIDS prevention and policy, child obesity prevention, and health disparities and access to care. Public health indicators in these areas are abysmal in Georgia, and millions of Georgians struggle to access health care every year. As Georgia’s future health professionals, we are determined to improve those statistics and to make our mark on the future of health care.
One major effort is the Grady Is Vital campaign that HealthSTAT initiated last fall in response to students’ concerns over the future of the Grady Health System. We brought together more than 200 health professional students and residents from across Georgia, including those at Emory, Morehouse, Medical College of Georgia, Mercer, Georgia State, and Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine.
When students first learned of the crisis surrounding Grady, many people told us to watch and wait. We watched, and we listened. We heard our patients telling us that they were praying every night for Grady to stay open. They shared their fears that they would have nowhere to go for health care if Grady closed. Because so many of us came to medical, nursing, or pharmacy school because of our desire to care for those in need, watching and waiting was not an option.
As health professional students, we saw three options: get depressed, angry, or involved. Instead of giving in to despair, we decided to take action to fulfill the idealistic goals that attracted us to the health professions in the first place. Our education was too important for us to sit on the sidelines, watching the debate over Grady play out without the voices of Georgia’s future. So the students organized to advocate for Grady patients and Georgia’s future.
Our campaign started as an extensive grassroots advocacy effort with presentations that integrated education with action in Georgia schools. Students delivered more than 600 handwritten letters to the Governor, Lt. Governor, and Speaker of the House, encouraging them to support Grady, fund a statewide trauma network, and increase Medicaid reimbursement rates. HealthSTAT organized a rally at Grady Hospital, drawing more than 300 students, residents, and faculty to share our message that this debate must focus on patients, not politics.
Once we understood the context for Grady’s crisis, we organized advocacy at the local and state levels. More than 100 students stood together at a critical Fulton County hearing, and 120 students attended a DeKalb County hearing as HealthSTAT leaders testified on the importance of Grady’s mission to care for the uninsured and underserved. White coats filled the hearings, capturing coverage on all the major news channels.
Based on extensive research, we created fact sheets for state legislators on Grady, primary care, trauma, Medicaid, and graduate medical education. Ben Harbin, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, sponsored a breakfast at the Capitol for HealthSTAT. And more than 50 students from across Georgia along with residents from five specialties successfully lobbied legislators to support Grady.
As the campaign continued, students and residents met one on one with key state leaders to advocate for Grady and organized tours of Grady for legislators to see firsthand that Grady is a vital safety net hospital for the poor and underserved. Rep. Ed Lindsey, speaking from the floor of the Georgia House of Representatives, said that “touring Grady with HealthSTAT students was one of the most eye-opening experiences in my four years in the state legislature.”
We started the Grady Is Vital Campaign to give our patients a voice and to unite students in a movement to help Grady thrive. In the process, we experienced a crash course in health policy and realized the tremendous power of our voices as Georgia’s future health professionals. In the end, we played a significant role in the political process and helped change the destiny of a hospital
Today Grady remains open, run by a new nonprofit board with renowned civic and business leaders in Atlanta that has secured a $200 million donation and is committed to initiating more fundraising. HealthSTAT achieved its legislative advocacy goals of increasing Medicaid reimbursement rates and graduate medical education funding and has continued to lobby for trauma funding.
And we’re not going away. We remain committed to creating a cadre of health professionals who have the skills and vision to improve health for all.
The most common question we are asked is, “on top of extremely demanding school schedules, why do you put so much time into HealthSTAT?” Our answer: because we believe a healthy future is possible for all Georgians. Because we believe we have a voice and an obligation to shape our health care system. Because we want to dream.