What Doctors Think Is Worth Fighting For

Shelly Reese


February 24, 2016

In This Article

Making Sense of a Confusing World

Some doctors are born activists. It's in their DNA to stand up, speak out, and get involved.

Others evolve. Ordinary physicians ensconced in busy lives—work, family, community—they're too busy doing the proverbial laundry of being a doctor to find time to stand on a soapbox. But then something throws the switch. It may be a cataclysmic event, or the proverbial final straw. Something compels them to step forward—frustration, grief, conviction—and there they are: accidental activists.

Activists are as varied as the causes they advocate, but they often share some underlying similarities, says Lauren Duncan, PhD, professor and chair of the psychology department at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. They have a desire to help the community and to make the world a better place. They also believe strongly that they can make a difference.

This may help explain why some physicians are drawn to activism. "Doctors are very efficacious," she notes. They treat patients; patients get better. "Doctors know from experience that what they do can make a difference."

We talked to five physicians about the evolution of their activism and the causes that drive them. Here are their stories.

Fighting for Family and Community

Although we often associate activism with college students, Dr Duncan says many people become more socially active around midlife. As people mature, their "spheres of caring" expand, she says. They want to act for the betterment not only of themselves and their immediate families, but on behalf of the community as a whole.

Drs Shaila Serpas and Michelle Davis, both family physicians, live on opposite sides of the country, but Dr Duncan's depiction of an activist describes them both.

For Dr Serpas, assistant program director for the Scripps Family Medicine Residency Program in Chula Vista, California, fighting childhood obesity became a personal and a professional imperative more than a decade ago. As with many parents, her initial foray into activism began at her children's elementary school.

Dr Shaila Serpas

"I wanted to raise my children with healthy eating habits, and I wasn't feeling supported by the school environment," she recalls. "Bad habits were so pervasive. They (the kids) were counting M&Ms to learn math skills. If they had a walk-to-school event, they celebrated with cookies and sweet drinks afterward. If they won Student of the Month, they got a gift certificate to a fast-food restaurant."

Frustrated, Dr Serpas approached the principal. "This was over a decade ago, when wellness wasn't on the school platform the way it is now. The feedback I got was, 'The cookies were donated, so that's the reward we offer,' or 'We can't do anything about a teacher handing out licorice in the classroom because there isn't a policy against it.' I just wasn't getting any traction."

So Dr Serpas joined the Chula Vista district's wellness committee. By 2010, the committee had created a policy that eliminated food-oriented birthday parties, removed flavored milks in the cafeteria, and improved the elementary schools' lunch menus.

But school wasn't the only place Dr Serpas was hitting a wall. While caring for overweight patients battling a litany of chronic conditions, she realized "there was too little time in the office with patients to really have an impact. I started to see how hard it was for them to make healthy choices because of problems in the broader environment. I realized I had to get outside the clinic to effect change, and I knew I could alter the trajectory if I got involved with kids."

Dr Serpas' activism gained momentum. She partnered with community organizations throughout the area, joined the wellness committee in the adjacent Sweetwater Union High School District, and began training residents to become community health activists. "We've had our residents testify at city council meetings and advocate for health policy changes, such as bike lanes and rezoning, so we can get toxic businesses out of residential areas," says Dr Serpas, who now serves as cochair of the San Diego County Childhood Obesity Initiative's Leadership Council.


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