“Busy Professionals: Making Time to Make a Difference”

Lessons from Andrew Pfeffer, MD

January 24, 2020 // Author: Austin Hollimon, King Health Fellow

In the hustle and bustle of our daily living many of us would love to be more active or engaged in healthcare advocacy, but just cannot find the time. Between kids, work, and the subtle war of traffic, dedicating time to advocate for systemic healthcare change can become an impossible ask. Even if we believe that change must come to our healthcare system, adding “change the world” to our to-do list can be just a little overwhelming. TJC understands this difficulty. So, we reached out to an outspoken professional who balances a busy schedule and still finds time to advocate.

Dr. Andrew Pfeffer recently authored an op-ed in the Tennessean which included signatures of 60 other physicians who opposed the TennCare block grant – a proposal to change the funding structure of the program that would lead to cuts. You might assume that maybe Dr. Pfeffer has a cushy job where he can write editorials while he’s on the clock. His shifts as a physician in Vanderbilt’s Emergency room do not afford the luxury of long form writing. TJC caught up with Dr. Pfeffer to learn a little bit about him and glean advice on how he makes time to make a difference.

As a professor of emergency medicine, clinician at Vanderbilt, husband, and father of four children, it is an understatement to say Dr. Pfeffer has very little free time. Even with his mountain of obligations, Dr. Pfeffer is consistently on the forefront of many of Tennessee’s most pressing medical issues as an advocate. So how does Dr. Pfeffer find time to advocate for sensible healthcare policies despite his tremendous responsibilities?

Counterintuitively, Dr. Pfeffer’s advice for “making time to make a difference” does not begin with constructing a list of items to accomplish or making an entry into your calendar. This commitment begins with aligning our actions with our values. Dr. Pfeffer recommends we begin by assessing our values which led him to reflect on his childhood. By remembering the hope of his childhood and belief that he could make a difference, Dr. Pfeffer orients his life around two priorities.

Dr. Pfeffer explains, “My first priority is to love and provide for my family. Without professional achievement, I would not have the resources to provide for my family or a platform to help make a difference in the public space.” After professional competence, Dr. Pfeffer frames his second priority as an answer to the question, “What kind of world will we leave behind?”

Dr. Pfeffer expounds, “There are always people trying to shape what our society and future looks like. While a part of me may want to allow these voices to have their say unopposed, I have observed that if I do not fight for the kind of society that I want; other people will. And those people may not have the best intentions or experiences that will leave our communities in a better place.” With that commitment to make the world a more just place as his framework, Dr. Pfeffer finds the motivation to speak out when he sees injustice. Dr. Pfeffer continues, “When I witness injustice, it bothers me. I have a voice and I know that other people share the same vision for the future. Not as many are willing or able to speak up, so I feel responsible to speak.”

After sharing his motivations for acting, Dr. Pfeffer left three practical steps to help each of us make time to make a difference.

1) Identify your obstacles.

Dr. Pfeffer begins his advice by acknowledging that we each have our own personal obstacles to making a difference and taking inventory of those obstacles is essential. When speaking of his own difficulty he identified his fear of imperfection as one of his biggest impediments to getting involved. To combat that he relays, “Being present in the moment and not reflecting continually is how I overcome my hesitation.” He recognized, even as he was writing his op-ed for the Tennessean, that sometimes his push for perfection caused hesitation or delay. In a tremendously humble commentary, he acknowledged his own flaws, but said that despite his flaws he pushes through and encourages us to do the same.

2) Don’t re-invent the wheel.

Many of us do not even know how we could get involved in advocacy. Dr. Pfeffer shared an old axiom to help those who may struggle. He said, “You don’t want to re-invent the wheel. In fact you do not have to….Sometimes, I feel like I do not know how to get involved. But when I reach out, I realize the barriers to entry are lower than I thought. I am a health expert and while oftentimes I do not know how to respond to the legal and policy debates, it is easy to connect with legal experts like Gordon Bonnyman or policy experts like Michele Johnson. When we connect to others who are in this space, it gives us agency and direction to make a difference.”

Realizing that we are not alone if we should ever feel a desire to make a difference is tremendously settling. TJC staff and other thought leaders are always happy to share their knowledge to help you speak out with an informed opinion.

3) Seek to educate.

As his last piece of advice, Dr. Pfeffer shared some wisdom from his medical practice in an insightful metaphor. He recounted, “One of my primary roles as a physician is actually as an educator. I educate families on what is possible to happen with their loved ones if certain actions are taken. Then I sit back and give them agency to make the best decision when they are facing a medical crisis. I hope they make the best decision, but I am not ultimately the decision maker. I am the educator.”

Dr. Pfeffer compares advocacy to his practice saying, “Acting as an advocate is very similar. My role is not that of a salesman. My job is to provide people with information so the public can make the best decision. If we seek to educate people about our perspective and our truth, then we will collectively begin implementing the right policies.”

In his last admonishment, Dr. Pfeffer reminds us how precious life is. “I try to remember that each second is a gift.” With the gift of life that he’s been given, he makes time to make a difference in the lives of others. Dr. Pfeffer’s own life has certainly inspired me to make time to make a difference. Hopefully, we can also be like Dr. Pfeffer and make just a little more time in 2020 to make a difference.

Austin Hollimon is the King Health Fellow at the Tennessee Justice Center.