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Advocacy a Way of Life for UW Medical Student

April 23, 2021
man carrying a young woman on a football field
WWAMI Medical Education Program student Bret Andrew, of Casper, has some fun with his sister, Samantha. Andrew advocated for a bill passed by the Wyoming Legislature prohibiting insurance companies and health care services from discriminating against individuals, based on disability, for organ transplants and related procedures. (Andrew Family Photo)

Training future physicians includes more than medical education. Leadership, especially in patient advocacy and community health education, is one of the additional skills prioritized for students in the Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana, Idaho (WWAMI) Medical Education Program at the University of Wyoming.

As a first-year medical student, Casper native Bret Andrew was well prepared to speak about health care equity -- a topic that is an integral part of his life, his family and his future role as a physician in Wyoming.

In early April, Wyoming House Bill 111 was signed into law by Gov. Mark Gordon. This law prohibits insurance companies and health care services from discriminating against individuals based on disability for organ transplants and related procedures.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, it is illegal at the federal level for individuals with intellectual or physical disabilities to be denied organ transplants based solely on their intellectual status. Nonetheless, states have no way to enforce this law on a local level and keep medical institutions or individuals accountable. HB111 recognizes and codifies equality for all Wyoming citizens on transplant lists and ensures that no one is denied a life-saving anatomical gift based on a perceived lower quality of life.

One of the most compelling voices in favor of the bill came from Andrew, who also was advocating on behalf of his sister, Samantha, who has Trisomy 21 or Down syndrome.

Andrew testified publicly about the impact of the bill, reinforcing to the Legislature and state that intellectual disability does not mean a person has a lower quality of life or should be denied access to health care resources.

“Advocating on behalf of my sister, Sammie, is one of the easiest things for me to do, because it is one of my favorite things to do,” Andrew says. “The bill ensures that my sister and individuals with similar conditions are protected from discrimination should they need an organ transplant. Sammie has worked hard to establish the beautiful life that she has today, and she deserves the same rights to preserve that life should it become medically necessary.”

The connection to UW and the College of Health Sciences runs in the family. Sammie Andrew and her mother, Julie, both serve on the Consumer Advisory Board of the Wyoming Institute for Disabilities (WIND), a unit of the UW College of Health Sciences. Their work with WIND has helped to raise awareness of the importance of full community and social inclusion for people with disabilities -- a mission that resonates in the discussion about HB111.

The collaboration between WWAMI, WIND and other units in the College of Health Sciences establishes critical interdisciplinary education for future health care providers who are critical to the state.

“The WWAMI program provides an important pipeline of excellent physicians to the state of Wyoming -- currently, Wyoming ranks 43rd in the country in terms of meeting physician workforce needs,” says Tim Robinson, director of the Wyoming-WWAMI Medical Education program on the UW campus.

“Nearly 70 percent of WWAMI graduates return to the state to practice medicine, and these returning physicians are of the highest quality -- the University of Washington School of Medicine was recently ranked the top medical school in the country in terms of primary and rural care. Not only does this program return some of the best physicians that our country produces, but our program also emphasizes leadership from day one,” Robinson says. “For Bret to take the time out of his medical school studies to speak on behalf of this bill is a testament to his commitment to medicine and his care for our great state. I couldn’t be more proud of Bret for his involvement on this important bill.”

Andrew says advocacy will continue to be integral to his education and work.

“A significant part of our WWAMI curriculum integrates public health challenges that our state is facing, and how to best address these challenges,” he says. “With these opportunities and knowledge comes a responsibility to be active in the community and to start laying the foundation for a career in serving our state. The more we can advocate for the health of Wyoming citizens now, as students, the better off our future patients will be when we return home to practice as physicians down the road.”

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