As a medical student, you never forget the first time a patient says, “Thank you for your help, but I can’t afford it.” It’s the one sentence that could stop any treatment plan, regardless of the potential benefits.
Medical textbooks aid in the diagnosis and treatment of patients, but they fail to tell us how to help a patient who cannot afford care. Like millions of Americans, many of our patients leave clinics with a choice between addressing their critical health needs or paying for basic necessities. As medical students and future physicians, we cannot ignore the system that denies our patients access to the care they need and deserve.
Over the course of history — from the Greensboro sit-ins of the 1960s civil rights movement to today’s high school students leading the fight for stricter gun regulations — students have been powerful agents of social and political change.
Based on this proud tradition of student-led activism, we recently gathered in New Orleans with more than 100 fellow medical students from across the country for the annual summit of Students for a National Health Program (SNaHP). SNaHP is a national organization of medical and health professional students advocating for a single-payer, Medicare-for-all health system. The event was organized and led by passionate students who believe every patient deserves access to quality, affordable health care. Wearing our white coats and holding “Medicare for All” signs, we danced and marched in a second line parade for health justice, crossing paths with University Medical Center and Tulane Medical Center.
The day concluded with a keynote presentation by Bethany Bultman, CEO of the New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic, who explained how the majority of performance artists in New Orleans are uninsured and rely on the Musicians’ Clinic to access basic health services. Musicians are at the heart of the city’s culture, but fall through the cracks of our fractured health system — often earning too much money to qualify for Medicaid, but not enough to afford private insurance.
Musicians aren’t the only New Orleanians who experience health care rationing. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, approximately 54,417 people in New Orleans still do not have any form of health insurance.
Our medical education can only benefit our future patients if an insurance company deems they are worthy of care. While we are taught to see all patients as humans deserving of the highest quality care, private insurers see patients as nothing but profit. We will not stand for a system that prevents us from providing the care our patients need. In this historic political moment of student-led activism, our time is now. Your health is too important for it not to be.