Why Taking a Healthcare Law and Policy Course Will Make Me a Stronger SLP

At the University of Texas at Austin, all SLP Master’s candidates are expected to fulfill elective course requirements during the summer term. After a jam-packed spring semester filled with courses, clinic, and unprecedented changes due to COVID-19, I was looking forward to a low-key summer learning about topics not directly related, but parallel, to speech pathology. As National NSSLHA’s Vice President for Government Affairs and Public Policy, I’m also incredibly interested in how we, as future professionals, can advocate for our professions and impact future policy.

I was thrilled—yet equally nervous—when I found a Healthcare Law and Policy course taught at the university’s Red McCombs Business School. But I’d only ever taken CSD courses . . . what was I doing thinking about registering for a course in business school?!

After finalizing my course schedule, I knew this was the course I needed. This was my chance to explore healthcare through a different lens, while simultaneously feeding my desire to learn more about becoming a better advocate—for me and my future clients.

What I Learned

After a challenging and intense 6-week summer term—yep, I kissed that low-key summer goodbye—I’m eager to share what I learned with you!

Upstream Versus Downstream Health Law

When talking about upstream-downstream healthcare, I’m referring to that push-pull of whether or not healthcare systems should treat patients reactively (once the problem presents itself) versus proactively (prior to onset).

When you read the term “upstream” or “downstream,” you probably picture a river. And, in fact, this imagery will actually help you conceptualize the difference between upstream and downstream health law. For example: You’re enjoying an outing on the river. Suddenly, you hear someone calling for help downstream. You go as fast as you can to help—ensuring their safety and providing aid. While you’re assisting this person, you hear someone else further upstream also calling for help. What do you do? Do you consider that second individual a patient yet? Or are they not considered a patient because your care hasn’t started? Do you owe a duty of care to both individuals or just one?

The Importance of Language in Healthcare

Language matters in healthcare. When you communicate, you must consider who you’re talking to—patients, clinicians, stakeholders, policymakers, or consumers. Broad use of language in healthcare can create misunderstanding amongst populations and can ultimately affect access to care. Specific, concrete definitions promote universal understanding, allowing for effective policies that address current healthcare needs.

Impact of Implicit Bias on Care

Healthcare professionals across the world seek to mitigate healthcare disparities faced by various populations, including those with low socioeconomic status, ethnic minority status, or disabilities, as well as those living in rural geographic areas.

One method of closing the healthcare gap is to address the effects of implicit bias. Implicit bias can affect the quality of provider-patient relationships . . . ultimately affecting trust and treatment compliance.

To combat implicit bias, healthcare providers can:

  • Use counterexamples (methods of fighting implicit bias associated with a particular group)
  • Maintain individuation (view a patient as an individual rather than a member of a group)
  • Complete implicit bias rounds (address how implicit bias could negatively influenced a patient’s past care)

Telehealth and Vulnerable Populations

Research indicates there is an inequity of access to care for people in rural areas, those with limited mobility, and those with no access to transportation. Telehealth addresses these disparities by opening up access to care, including allowing for more frequent clinician follow-ups and treatment education. It promotes accessible communication by valuing two core treatment principles:

  • Client compliance (client adherence to the clinician’s recommendations)
  • Client-clinician concordance (a strong client-clinician relationship critical in perpetuating successful treatment)

Advocacy + Healthcare

During the course, we heard from a non-partisan organization that highlighted the importance of voting as future healthcare providers and we were encouraged to attend virtual events that address community and public health needs, like virtual town halls and city council meetings.

We also learned how to draft comments to legislative proposals. I had the opportunity to write to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to address how telehealth, specifically for audiologists and SLPs, provides equitable and accessible care to those who need it most.

Connecting the Dots

This course helped connect the dots as to why advocacy is such an incredibly important tool for those of us entering the healthcare field. It allowed me to think critically about how healthcare access, social determinants of health, and health disparities can affect those we serve in both speech pathology and audiology. Learning about various avenues for advocacy can promote change and is incredibly empowering as healthcare professionals.

Take Action Now

It may seem overwhelming at first, but it’s actually very easy to get started in advocating for our professions now as students. If you didn’t already know, Student Advocacy Day is coming up on Thursday, September 24. On this day, National NSSLHA and ASHA are encouraging CSD students to write to their members of Congress about issues that impact us now as students, and as future professionals.

It’s really easy to participate:

  • Check out the issues on ASHA’s Take Action website (make sure you’re in the “Student Advocates” section).
  • Click on the link to the policy you’d like to Take Action on.
  • Fill in your info—the system automatically identifies your members of Congress.
  • Add a personal story or message in the pre-populated letter.
  • Click “submit” and you’re done!

Although apprehensive to step out of my comfort zone and enroll in a course outside of CSD, the power of education as a resource and tool cannot go unnoticed. Moving forward, I’m eager to apply this knowledge to my clinical practice and continue advocating for our profession on Student Advocacy Day, Virtual Advocacy Day, and beyond!

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