Don’t “Stay In Your Lane”: Why Clinicians Should Be Activists For Social Change

This blog was originally published on The Medical Care Blog on January 22, 2024.

We’re looking for trailblazing clinicians who stand out for their bold leadership in social justice, environmentalism, global peace, or other notable humanitarian efforts for the 2024 Bernard Lown Award for Social Responsibility. Nominations close January 31, 2024.

It was the tweet heard around the healthcare world.

In 2018, after the American College of Physicians had published their position paper advocating gun control as a public health imperative, the National Rifle Association posted a tweet starting: “Someone should tell self-important anti-gun doctors to stay in their lane.”

Clinicians immediately began posting images and sharing their experiences treating children injured or killed by firearm violence, showing undoubtedly that this is our lane.

Pushed outside the usual lane

Since 2018, the medical community has faced even more challenges that have pushed clinicians outside their usual lane. Many feel increasingly compelled to enter the social, political, and public health arenas for the sake of their country’s health.

For example, a global pandemic claimed the lives of more than a million Americans, disproportionately harming older, lower-income, and minoritized Americans. Firearm violence harms tens of thousands each year. And systemic racism results in countless deaths from police violence, environmental harms, lack of access to care, and “weathering” effects of the constant stress of discrimination. 

Furthermore, climate change has emerged as one of the most significant threats to public health. Even low levels of air pollution have been shown to damage health and contribute to increased health care costs. It also increases the risk of heart disease and has been linked to dementia and Alzheimer’s.

Rising emissions are responsible for increasing rates of natural disasters, making recovery difficult for individuals who were already vulnerable to begin with. Ironically, the U.S. healthcare system itself contributes a noteworthy 8.5% of greenhouse gas emissions. In this way, institutions meant to heal are contributing to poor health. 

The clinician activist generation

These critical issues require a new generation of clinician leaders. They must be unafraid to go beyond their hospital walls to confront the biggest health challenges of our time. And many are, indeed, stepping up to the challenge. Every day, clinicians, health researchers, and others in the healthcare space are declaring: “This is my lane”. They are taking much-needed actions on environmental justice, racism, immigration detention and many other humanitarian issues.

The Medical Care Blog, for example, declared 2024 their year of climate action. To embody this, the editors decided to allocate more space for climate-related publications on this platform. And they published a bold consensus statement on climate change and public health signed by numerous authors.

It’s not always easy to speak up

Too often, the clinician activist will face threats or pushback from institutions that benefit from the status quo. When pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha exposed dangerous levels of lead in Flint, Michigan’s drinking water, city officials immediately tried to discredit her. Similarly, neurologist Dr. Altaf Saadi advocated for “sanctuary hospitals” to protect immigrant patients at a time when supporters of immigrant rights were being targeted.

We need to support these brave leaders and let them know we hear their voices. That’s why the Lown Institute created the Bernard Lown Award for Social Responsibility. The Bernard Lown award honors young clinician activists who are leading the charge on critical social and humanitarian issues. Dr. Bernard Lown received a Nobel Peace Prize for organizing doctors against nuclear proliferation during the Cold War.

We give the award (and $25,000 prize) each year to an individual who stands out for their bold leadership in social justice, environmentalism, global peace, or other humanitarian efforts. This person must be aged 45 or younger and actively working as a clinician in the U.S. Nominations for the 2024 award are currently open until the end of January. 

We seek a clinician activist with the vision to understand the healthcare system as it is, the courage to take a stand, and the confidence to lead a movement towards a vastly improved healthcare paradigm. If you know someone who refuses to “stay in their lane” and works tirelessly to stand up for what’s right, nominate them for the Bernard Lown Award!