This year’s Advocates for Arthritis event, to be held Sept. 14 and 15, will take place virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, its purpose remains vital.
You Might Also Like
Also By This Author
The event will once again unite rheumatologists, rheumatology professionals and patients to speak with legislators and staff to boost awareness of rheumatology on Capitol Hill. Participants will have the chance to meet with their Congressional members via teleconference during the event.
The Rheumatologist got a sneak peek into how the process may work when we had the chance to speak with Michael Williams, a legislative assistant specializing in healthcare for Rep. Lucy McBath (D-Ga.), and Tanner Palin, who is Rep. McBath’s communication director, to learn how they are communicating with constituents now and what messages have resounded for them.
TR: How are legislators connecting with constituents through virtual events?
Mr. Williams: [Remaining connected with constituents has] been challenging, but the thing I’ve found most helpful is Zoom calls, where I can see patients and providers. There’s a richer emotional connection through Zoom compared to a phone call, and that makes those patient and provider meetings special. Conference calls work better if there’s a preexisting relationship.
To me, it’s most important that virtual calls have a group that is small enough that I can see everyone, and everyone has a chance to speak and interact. Groups of four to five people at a time are enough to get a good interaction with everyone. There were times in the Hill office where we would meet with 10 to 12 people. You can look at everybody and read body language, but that’s a lot more difficult with virtual things.
TR: Where are Capitol Hill staffers working now?
Mr. Williams: Most of us are working from home at the guidance of the Attending Physician of the United States Congress. Working at home has its advantages but there’s not a clear break when you are working or when you are not. All day, you’re either on the phone, Zoom calls or responding to email. The day has much less structure than it used to. There are no big blocks of three-hour hearings. It’s a different vibe, but it leaves an opening for someone to say, ‘Do you have 30 or 40 minutes here?’ We’ve had more time for constituent calls and doing legislative work. It can be a benefit to [constituents] if you’re flexible.
TR: What have you learned about the impact of the pandemic on rheumatology?
Mr. Williams: For me, it’s all about patients and providers. The providers are explaining the difficulties in treating patients and how the pandemic has delayed care. Take arthritis for instance—due to COVID there are often in-patient infusions that are being foregone. The pandemic has really exacerbated those issues. With the suspension of elective surgeries and the restriction on in-patient services, it’s important for us to hear about the effects these measures are having, even if they are necessary.
TR: How are people in your office communicating with constituents right now?
Mr. Palin: We’ve really focused on continuing to make sure our office is as accessible as possible to constituents. A lot of folks don’t know they can reach out to us and we can help solve issues with federal agencies. With many still stuck at home, we’ve had to find new ways to communicate that we can be a resource. One way we’ve done that is with tele-town halls, texting and virtual events. As things have switched to virtual, we’ve ramped up that type of communication, contacting tens of thousands of constituents to invite them to community forums. In these forums, the Congresswoman can update constituents personally, and we bring on experts to talk about small business, health care surrounding the pandemic and other topics.
We’ve also held a multitude of webinars on various issues. Our small businesses webinars were some of our most widely attended, and we brought on folks from the SBA and other agencies to help answer questions about Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans, and some of the other programs available to small business owners. Throughout this process, we’ve had small business practitioners who say they needed help with PPP or Economic Injury Disaster Loans, and we’ve been working to connect them with the resources and information they need.
With constituents unable to visit due to quarantine orders, we’ve tried to come up with innovative and creative ways to reach out and remain a resource, and I think we’ve been pretty successful.
Vanessa Caceres is a freelance medical writer in Bradenton, Fla.