Activism and Advocacy: How Medical Students at the 1969 AMSA Convention Changed the History of Healthcare Advocacy in the United States

Written by Stephen R. Smith, MD, MPH, Professor Emeritus of Family Medicine, Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University, and founding member of the National Physicians Alliance.

The first American Medical Student Association (AMSA) Convention I attended—it was actually called Student American Medical Association (SAMA) back then—was in 1969. It was an amazing time. The organization had just recently completely dissociated itself with the American Medical Association (AMA), fired the previous executive director, asserted the pre-eminence of student leadership in the organization’s operations, and set a new, progressive course for the group.

I came into that convention with a crazy idea to create a domestic Peace Corps for doctors where they could meet their military draft obligations by practicing in underserved communities in the United States through the commissioned corps of the Public Health Service. I took the idea to the House of Delegates of SAMA where it passed by an over 2/3 majority as Resolution 4A. Working with two other med students, Chip Avery and Brian Biles, we got Brian’s Congressman, Rep. William Roy, himself a physician, to sponsor a bill in the House that would eventually be signed into law by President Nixon establishing the National Health Service Corps.

I tell that story to make a few points about student activism and advocacy. First of all, I want to be sure you all know what an amazing organization AMSA is. If you ever read the Dance of Legislation—a book about the creation of the National Health Service Corps, written by Eric Redman, a staffer to Senator Warren Magnuson—you’ll see how much the voice of medical students through SAMA mattered. It still does.

Second, I want to emphasize how much you, as an individual, can also do. I was only a 1st-year medical student when I introduced my resolution to the House of Delegates. But don’t be a lone wolf, either. You need collaborators and allies. If it wasn’t for Brian Biles and Chip Avery, my resolution wouldn’t have gone any further.

Last, treasure the personal connections you’ll make in your journey of activism. I’m still connected with many of my former SAMA colleagues—what we now call OATS—“Old AMSA Types”—through the National Physicians Alliance, which is where medical students will find an inspiring professional home after graduating from medical school.

This piece was presented during the NPA’s March 2014 National Grand Rounds, “Agents of Change: Empowering Students to be Leaders in Conflict of Interest Policy Reform,” at the AMSA Convention in New Orleans. The webcast recording is available here along with full National Grand Rounds Series Archive. These events are offered as part of the Partnership to Advance Conflict-free Medical Education (PACME). This partnership and related materials were made possible by a grant from the state Attorney General Consumer and Prescriber Education Grant Program which is funded by the multi-state settlement of consumer fraud claims regarding the marketing of the prescription drug Neurontin.