What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word “advocacy”? What about “lobbying”? Most people think advocacy and lobbying are synonymous. Merriam-Webster defines advocacy as “the act or process of supporting a cause or proposal.”1 Advocacy could mean promoting the interests of a person or a group of people. More simply put, it can be loosely defined as an act to help people find their voice. In health care, advocacy is often centered around activities that help ensure access to care. This can include helping navigate complicated systems, mobilizing resources, tackling health inequities, and influencing policy change.2
Lobbying, on the other hand, is any attempt to influence a politician or public official on an issue.3 Typically, lobbying occurs in one of two ways: direct lobbying or grassroots lobbying. Direct lobbying involves an individual attempting to influence legislation by communicating with a member of a legislative body, whereas grassroots lobbying occurs through citizen participation around a legislative matter of interest.3
While anyone can be an advocate, lobbying has limitations. Members of organizations such as nonprofits are not allowed to contact legislators or other government agencies to petition for legislative changes.3 The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) specifically states that if a nonprofit organization (501(c)3) engages in lobbying or attempting to influence legislation, they risk losing their tax-exempt status.3 Therefore, if you represent a nonprofit, you should consult with legal counsel before your organization engages in lobbying efforts.
Since the beginning of time, humankind has recognized that power exists in numbers. Today, special interest groups such as the American Dental Association (ADA) and the American Dental Hygienists’ Association (ADHA) gather in numbers to influence policy development or change. More recently we witnessed advocacy in action by the ADA and ADHA, as respective leaders worked diligently to ensure that the dental community had a voice in policies surrounding the coronavirus, specifically related to personal protective equipment (PPE), testing, and inclusion in initial COVID vaccinations.
Although time consuming, advocacy is relatively simple. In fact, at some point in your life, you’ve most likely engaged in advocacy without even knowing it. Have you ever supported a cause or call for change? This could have been as simple as a petition or policy change in your community or in your child’s school. While you may not have recognized it at the time, these acts are examples of advocacy. Advocacy can indeed facilitate change; therefore, knowing how to do it well can be critical.
Know your audience and fight for what matters
As a dental provider, you advocate for your patients, family, and community daily. This can be as simple as talking with patients and peers, or as formal as speaking with elected officials. Some recent advocacy initiatives in the dental community have been centered around access to care, opioid abuse, patient education, tax reform, and student debt.
Often, as dental hygienists, we want to make a difference in the lives of our patients. It is our desire to function at the highest level of our licensure. However, antiquated dental practice acts can restrict our ability to achieve that goal. Thus, to advocate for our patients, we must first advocate for ourselves. This often feels daunting, as our delegable functions are governed by state practice acts. State practice acts are governed by state law where amending, changing, or introducing new laws requires legislative action. This may make advocacy more challenging, but it’s not impossible.
Identify, research, and validate
One of the first steps to becoming an advocate is to identify an issue you want to tackle. Once you identify a problem in your community or profession, gather evidence that the change you are proposing will make a positive impact in the lives of the people who’ll be affected. While you may have strong feelings about a proposed change, without sufficient evidence of all potential outcomes, your efforts may become stalled.
Successful advocates gather research that not only supports their agenda, but opposing information as well. Step back and postulate on the different ways in which you can represent your cause. Be open and willing to engage with those who express differing or opposing views. Be assertive, but not aggressive. Champion partnerships with others who share the same goals or similar experiences. Finally, meet with policymakers, legislative representatives, or lobbyists to discuss your initiatives and proposals, concluding by soliciting sponsorship for legislative change.
Form an alliance
Dental organizations are an important ally as your first step toward becoming an advocate. It’s difficult to institute change as an individual. Policymakers prefer to have a reasonable, consistent message from concerned organizations. If all affected parties are sending the same message, policymakers are more likely to become engaged and want to listen. Therefore, working with professional organizations presents a unified message and is more meaningful than your voice alone.
In conclusion, despite your best efforts, it’s possible that your actions may fail to bring about change. Be persistent and realize that you may have to negotiate a resolution. Preserve your credibility by being prepared, practicing effective communication, gathering data, enlisting allies, and maintaining professionalism.
Editor’s note: This article appeared in the March 2022 print edition of RDH magazine. Dental hygienists in North America are eligible for a complimentary print subscription. Sign up here.
- Definition of “advocacy.” Merriam-Webster. Accessed December 20, 2021. www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/advocacy.
- Hubinette M, Dobson S, Scott I, Sherbino J. Health advocacy. Med Teach. 2017;39(2):128-135. doi:10.1080/0142159X.2017.1245853
- Lobbying definitions, exceptions, and examples. DukeHealth. https://govrelations.duke.edu/ethics-and-compliance/lobbying-definitions-exceptions-and-examples