Physicians’ skills and dedication can only go so far. To serve patients, they also need a cohesive system that delivers care effectively, helps prevent disease, and promotes exploration into life-saving cures. But that’s not possible without crucial funding and supportive governmental policies.
Danielle Turnipseed, JD, MHSA, MPP, has been making that case with thought leaders and policymakers for decades. On November 1, she joins the AAMC as its new chief public policy officer.
In her prior position as assistant director of federal affairs at the American Medical Association, Turnipseed worked with key government agencies to advocate on such issues as health care delivery reform, increased Medicare payments, and the nation’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Before that, Turnipseed served as vice president for government affairs and policy at a health technology start-up focused on diabetes prevention, where she spearheaded federal policy efforts.
Turnipseed also has worked as a health policy advisor in the offices of two U.S. senators, where she focused on such concerns as health system financial solvency, the nursing shortage, and U.S.-Mexico border health issues.
At the AAMC, Turnipseed will work to advance legislative and regulatory priorities related to medical education, health care delivery, medical research, and community collaborations — issues that affect some 250,000 U.S. medical trainees; 400 teaching hospitals and health systems; 156 medical schools; 80 academic societies; and millions of educators, scientists, and patients.
Turnipseed succeeds Karen Fisher, JD, who retired in June after nearly 20 years at the AAMC.
“I’m looking forward to telling our great story so people better understand that medical schools and teaching hospitals are not only a source of improved health but also a source of jobs, a source of innovation, and, ultimately, a source of pride,” Turnipseed says.
AAMCNews talked with Turnipseed about her vision for her new role and the work that lies ahead.
You’ve been working in health policy for decades. How might your prior experience come into play at the AAMC?
I’m fortunate that I’ve had some really impactful experiences around health care, health policy, and advocacy. I was a health policy advisor to two U.S. senators, so I understand Capitol Hill well. And I’ve supported organizations that worked with presidential administrations, with Congress, in states, and at the local level.
I concentrated in health law in law school, and I’ve long been interested in policy, so I also went to graduate school for master’s degrees in public policy and public health.
Early in my education, I thought about becoming a doctor, but I wound up shifting to more of a systems approach in college. During a course in rural health at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, I visited a turkey plant, and I remember seeing the kinds of ailments that people had, including hand strain from the repetitive processing work. And I saw a lot of poverty in addition to the health problems in rural areas.
So when I thought about treating patients coming through my door as a physician over and over with similar problems, it clicked in my mind that I wanted to get out in front of the door, to help prevent patients from needing to come into the doctor’s office the first place. I thought, “Do we just accept certain ailments as occupationally, geographically, or generationally caused — or can we use policy to break the cycle?”
How do you envision your early days at the AAMC as you immerse yourself in the organization and its policy priorities?
I need to listen. I need to learn. I need to read. I am looking forward to absorbing all that I can about the fantastic team and the fantastic work that’s being done in the AAMC’s Government Relations office. And I look forward to connecting with the people who make up the AAMC internally and at the institutions we serve, and to absorbing which programs and issues are important to them.
I want to jump into our work quickly because it’s based largely on the congressional calendar. But this will also be a continuous process for me, not just two weeks and I’m done. I want to make sure that I’m always open and learning.
Health equity has been a major focus for the AAMC and for you as well. Do you think policymakers appreciate its urgency?
I look forward to meeting with policymakers to reinforce why health equity must continue to be a high priority. I don’t want anyone to think that, as we look forward to COVID-19 winding down, the inequities the pandemic highlighted have dissipated. That certainly isn’t the case.
We can also always bring equity into our work, whether we are looking at disease incidence, clinical trials, the availability of therapeutics, the health care workforce, or other topics.
I’ve already connected with colleagues at the AAMC’s Center for Health Justice, and I’m interested in their collaborations in under-resourced communities. I want to look at broader systems — whether in education, housing, employment, or food — that affect health. To me, addressing these issues is a matter of justice.
Funding for the National Institutes of Health is another crucial focus for the AAMC. What are your thoughts on that moving forward?
We need to remind Congress and the public that health concerns that burdened generations have been eradicated or treated thanks to NIH-funded research. Patients today benefit from therapeutics and breakthroughs from research going back many years. And sometimes, we don’t have to wait that long because treatments are coming to market much faster now.
We’ve seen robust numbers for NIH funding in recent years, but I don’t want a robust number to placate us. We need to make sure that the number is right-sized for the mission — which is saving lives, preventing illness, and helping people lead healthier lives — and adjusted appropriately for inflation.
The NIH needs adequate research funding to support continuous advances and to be ever-ready to deal with new health threats. As we’ve seen with COVID-19, viruses mutate — and we need not just deal with a virus itself but also to look at issues like its mechanisms, comorbidities, and long-term effects, and why some people fare differently than others.
Caps on Medicare funding for residency slots limit the number of future doctors, but this country is struggling with a physician shortage. How can we make the case for increased residency funding?
We have a very strong argument here. We need to make sure we are bringing that argument to the right people. Representatives who have medical schools and teaching hospitals in their districts usually know what we contribute, so they make reliable champions. But I also want to make sure we’re talking to members from other districts to emphasize that this country needs to produce more physicians. The AAMC is predicting a physician shortfall of up to 124,000 physicians by 2034.
This country must make sure care gets to the people who need it most. We don’t want patients to be three hours away from any specialists or for there to be one specialist in a region who is terribly overextended. We want to make sure rural areas are covered. So we need to increase the pool of physicians, and increasing residency slots is certainly the direction we should be going.
What other policy-related challenges lie ahead for academic medicine?
There are some core issues like affordable health insurance, access to care, and immigration to help address physician shortages that we will keep focusing on because they are so important. We also need to make sure that other concerns that warrant attention are brought to the fore, like gun violence and maternal mortality. We need to be able to contribute our expertise to discussions about such issues as the effects of climate change on health.
Mental health, especially among young people, also deserves our attention. This pandemic period has been such a stressful time with all the changes and losses because of COVID. We need to unpack how children are internalizing what we’ve been through. And we need to help ensure that there are opportunities for people to get the treatment and support they need.
So as a government relations team, we have to reserve some bandwidth for challenges that emerge while continuing to address ongoing priorities.
As you work with leaders on Capitol Hill and in the administration, what do you believe will be effective tools for representing medical schools and teaching hospitals?
We’ve got a great story to tell about what our medical schools and teaching hospitals are doing to promote health and about the many people whose lives are positively impacted by this work. I’m looking forward to making sure we tell our story so that policymakers are just as excited about the work as we are.
People have heard about the rapid development of a COVID-19 vaccine and may know that it was based on NIH-funded research at academic medical centers, but I would love to delve deeper into how medical schools and teaching hospitals have been central to some of the advancements we’ve seen for cancer and so many other conditions.
It’s also important to emphasize the economic impact that medical schools and teaching hospitals have on local communities, how they contribute to the stability and the vitality of surrounding areas. We need to tell that story as well.
Given the current political environment, how can we find bipartisan champions for academic medicine?
We can unite around common goals. We all want people to be healthy. We all want people to have access to physicians and hospitals. We all want to make sure that everyone has a chance to live and thrive.
I never want areas where we weren’t aligned with stakeholders in the past to keep us from coming together in the future. If there’s a bright line between our views and someone else’s, we will continue to go back with our message and explain why we think it makes sense.
Our members have real-world experience that we can bring to policymakers, experience with how teaching happens, how care happens, and how research happens. That’s our lane, and we can best describe how legislation can affect that work.
We also need to remember to go back and say thank you to legislators. To say, “This is what we’ve been able to achieve because of what you did.”
What inspires you to do this work?
It’s so rewarding to know that our work will impact millions of lives for decades to come. We have the opportunity to affect both individual patients and the wider system at the same time. That’s creating a legacy. That’s inspiring.
I also appreciate the opportunity to help the next generation get involved in advocacy, policy, and providing medical care. We need to focus not just on medical students but on the fifth and sixth graders out there who are interested in science, technology, and medicine. I want to motivate young people, especially women and young people of diverse backgrounds, to consider medicine as a way for them to serve their communities.
I hope that we can remember that we’re here because someone or something sparked an interest in us. I’ve had a lot of people who have motivated me.
My mother and father modeled excellence. They both were the first in their families to go to college, and they both went to historically black colleges and earned graduate degrees. It meant a lot seeing people like them who broke barriers. That inspired me to achieve excellence, and it opened up a sense that I could do anything with hard work.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. If you’re interested in connecting with Danielle Turnipseed, she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.