Engaging in advocacy activities can feel daunting for a medical school student or pediatric resident. From choosing an advocacy topic, to setting up meetings with legislators or collaborative partners, to following the progress of related policies and proposed bills – there is a lot to consider. For two MNAAP members, participating in a newly formed scholarship helped them navigate their advocacy experiences in a way that each says was rewarding and inspiring.
Dr. Wendy Sun and Dr. Sarah Swenson are the inaugural recipients of the Eric Dick Advocacy Scholarship. The scholarship formed when a MNAAP board member wanted to honor longtime chapter lobbyist, Eric Dick, after his sudden passing in January of 2021. Eric was deeply committed to improving the health and wellbeing of every child in Minnesota and he not only personally fought for policies to achieve this goal, but also engaged so many beyond himself in the legislative process. The Eric Dick Memorial Advocacy Scholarship is awarded annually to one or more fellows, residents, medical students or trainees each year to engage in legislative advocacy projects aimed at improving the health and wellbeing of children in Minnesota – particularly those focused on eliminating health disparities.
Drs. Sun and Swenson took different approaches to their advocacy projects but found the support from the chapter provided an important foundation to engage in the work as champions for their causes.
Dr. Sun is a pediatric resident who says she has always been interested in advocacy work and was looking for an advocacy mentor when MNAAP Treasurer Janna Gewirtz O’Brien encouraged her to apply for the scholarship.
“Advocacy is something that has brought me a lot of meaning in my work on top of my clinical work. In our clinic work we aren’t always able to address the higher systems that create disparities for our patients,” said Dr. Sun.
After meeting virtually with MNAAP leadership and receiving an orientation about the legislative process, Dr. Sun was able to zero in on school-based mental health as her area of interest. Chapter lobbyist Chad Fahning played a role in helping connect her with the issue, which was already receiving attention at the Capitol. It was a particularly meaningful topic, she said, because school-based mental health services are a good way to address disparities. It can remove the financial barrier or the challenge of taking time out of a work or school day for an appointment. In her work at Hennepin Healthcare she said she often sees teens who need mental health help, but they have parents with a stigma or a cultural concern about mental health services.
“I see kids hanging on by a thread and the first thing I say is, ‘where do you go to school?’ to see how I can connect them with school-based mental health services,” explained Dr. Sun.
As part of her advocacy project, Dr. Sun was able to meet with Senator Erin Maye Quade and Representative Robert Bierman. She voiced support for HF564, which allocates 25 percent of new funding to target providers that can serve schools that have high special education or a high rate of families experiencing poverty, especially in rural and urban settings. She also learned how to prepare a testimony and be ready to present if the opportunity arose.
Dr. Sun says even though the work for her project is complete, she wants to build on the connections she formed with other mental health advocates to address systemic issues. It left her energized to stay involved in advocacy work: “I’ve been asking myself – what’s the next step?” she said.
For Dr. Sarah Swenson, she knows exactly when and where her advocacy interests took root. As a teen, she was a hospital volunteer and saw firsthand the importance of perinatal mental health support for families of babies in the NICU. She witnessed the strain having a baby in the NICU for an extended stay can have on parents, affecting their ability to be present for their child and preserve their own mental health. A stay in the NICU can be a potentially traumatic event for families, she said.
“I saw the scholarship and thought, ‘what an opportunity to receive some mentorship so I can move things from bothering me to addressing them,’ “ she said. Dr. Swenson reached out to MNAAP Policy Co-Chair Hannah Lichtsinn, MD, FAAP. Dr. Lichtsinn helped Dr. Swenson work through her ideas about perinatal mental health to refine a potential solution for the problem she was seeing in the families of her NICU patients.
Dr. Swenson focused her advocacy scholarship project on initiating policy change that would allow for a Medicaid waiver in which out-of-state-parents who traveled to Minnesota to receive NICU services for their children could be screened for mental health services themselves and receive care while they are in Minnesota. Insurance and financial barriers are often the reason a referred family member does not following through to treatment for their perinatal mental health.
Such a shift in policy requires a long-term approach, but she says she’s made some good connections so far to help continue the conversation even after this legislative session (and the term of the advocacy scholarship project) are over. “I got connected with the Policy Center for Maternal Mental Health and NAMI. I’m planning to meet and collaborate with Sen. Bonnie Westlin to see if we could do something like a resolution or form a task force to better understand perinatal mental health needs in the state,” explained Dr. Swenson.
When asked if they would encourage interested residents or medical students to apply for the next round of Eric Dick Advocacy Scholarships, both Drs. Sun and Swenson gave a heartfelt endorsement of the program.
“I am 100% biased,” laughed Dr. Sun, “but absolutely. Interested people should apply. As trainees, we are digging out of the pandemic hole, and now we are so much more aware of the systemic problems that exist. This is a way to address those issues.”
Dr. Swenson pointed out that the scholarship is a great way to move past any self-imposed barriers.
“I would tell a scholarship recipient: imposter syndrome can be a barrier to trying to do this type of work and trying to do new things like advocacy. So although there are barriers such as time, or confidence, or knowledge to doing this type of work, I would encourage people to pursue it and not let that get in the way. There are great mentors who can help you. You don’t have to be an expert in policy to try and make meaningful change that affects the health and wellbeing of your patients and families.”
The Eric Dick Memorial Advocacy Scholarship is fully funded for the next round of interested participants. The application link will be shared in an upcoming All Member Email from the chapter.
Consider Giving to the Eric Dick Memorial Scholarship
The Eric Dick Memorial Scholarship was seeded with a generous, 10-year financial commitment from a MNAAP board member who wanted to see Eric’s legacy continued through the members of the MNAAP.
Eric worked tirelessly to advocate on behalf of Minnesota’s children and teens, and was passionate about helping medical students and early career physicians learn the ropes of legislative advocacy.
We invite you to consider contributing to the scholarship fund in order to help many more recipients to benefit from training and support as they launch their own advocacy projects.
To give, you can visit the Foundation’s webpage at mnaap.org/mapf and click the donate button, or mail a check, made payable to the Minnesota Academy of Pediatrics Foundation, to the address below. Please include “Eric Dick Memorial Advocacy Scholarship” in the memo line.
Minnesota Academy of Pediatrics Foundation
c/o Jeff Bauer, Executive Director
1609 County Road 42 W. #305
Burnsville, MN 55306