Medical students turn health advocacy into action

What started out as a harm-reduction pitch by medical students for Municipal Lobby Day has resulted in real action at City Hall.

This month, London City Council passed a motion that was originally put forward by medical students to include naloxone kits alongside automated external defibrillators (AEDs) in city-operated facilities in London. Naloxone is a drug that reverses opioid overdose long enough to seek medical help.

“Early on we met with a number of Councillors who were largely receptive to our idea and provided helpful feedback as well,” said Rebecca Barnfield, Medicine Class of 2020, and member of Schulich Medicine & Dentistry’s Political Advocacy Committee (PAC) who was instrumental in getting the proposal endorsed by council. “Receiving support of the council was an exciting next step.”

The students began in February meeting with City Councillors to seek support for the idea as part of Municipal Lobby Day, a day organized by PAC to give future physicians real-life experience as health advocates. The proposal was spurred by the fact that the rate of hospitalizations due to opioid overdose in London is one of the highest in Canada — higher than big cities like Toronto and Ottawa, and was modelled after a similar initiative in Kingston.

“We thought this idea was fantastic as it was achievable, applicable considering the ongoing opioid crisis and the toll it has had on London in particular, and it related to our interests as medical students,” said Eric Mitchell, Medicine Class of 2020, who is also a member of PAC. “I hope that our success will provide inspiration for anyone else with an idea on how to improve our city, but who may not believe anything can be done about it.”

After meeting with Councillors, the students brought their idea to the City’s Community and Protective Services Committee. The Committee voted unanimously to ask staff to report back with a potential plan to add naloxone kits to the 53 AEDs in city facilities. It was a plan that full council later endorsed as well.

Trystan Nault, Medicine Class of 2020 and chair of PAC, says he feels extremely proud to see the idea come to fruition. “Everyone came together this year and put the work toward this very worthy goal of ours,” he said. “I am excited to see what we will do in the future as we build on this success.”

City staff have now been directed by council to work out an implementation plan and look into the costs related to training staff to use the kits, and where signs will be placed.

They will also be working to come up with recommendations for gathering data related to usage of the kits and to make the necessary arrangements for town hall-style meetings to inform and educate the public.

“If the public knowledge that AED machines are stocked with naloxone and that this drug can reverse opioid poisoning results in a single life saved, that is a huge victory for both this project and harm reduction in the city at large,” said Nault.

For Jamie Riggs, Medicine Class of 2020, his involvement in PAC and this initiative in particular really highlights the importance of advocacy in the profession of medicine as a whole.

“Advocacy on every level is crucial as physicians. Whether it be advocating for individual patients to get the services they need, or at a municipal, provincial or federal level, we have the ability to affect change for the better,” he said. “I think this experience has encouraged those of us involved to continue advocating for better communities for our patients.”

PAC Chair Trystan Nault will be part of a panel discussion on Opioids: A Country in Crisis as part of Homecoming Weekend. Register today