Yolanda Wimberly, MD

The Necessity of Physician Activism

“If physicians don’t talk about their experiences, no one will know.”

Since 2004, Dr. Yolanda Wimberly has traveled from Atlanta to rural Georgia, conducting educational sessions on adolescent health with the local health center as well as with area teens. “In a rural environment you’re not just talking to healthcare providers, you’re talking to everybody,” she says. “The mayor and city council members show up for my lectures, which gives me a better chance to educate people. It’s nice talking to the mayor about teen pregnancy, and I don’t get that opportunity as often in urban areas.”

Dr. Wimberly, an assistant professor of Clinical Pediatrics at Morehouse School of Medicine, conducts this work as a faculty member of Physicians for Reproductive Health’s Adolescent Reproductive Health Education Program, which arranges the lectures and provides slides and lecture notes. “I go to rural areas knowing the local rates of sexually transmitted infections, the local teen pregnancy rates and, most importantly, what kinds of services are currently offered,” she says. “You have to know what’s going on locally so you can get at the real reasons teens aren’t getting adequate healthcare. Is it just a matter of education or is it something else, like access to services? I really probe the providers and ask them what they’re doing and how I can help. I’m going to do everything I can to ensure the best healthcare possible. By educating other doctors I help them to improve the lives of their patients.”

The relationship doesn’t stop there. “Even though I work in Atlanta, I work to keep a link with rural communities so they can contact me anytime,” she says. “I want to be a resource for them. I establish relationships with the doctors and communities, because you can’t teach everything in one visit. We keep communicating, so they learn from me and I learn from them.”

For Dr. Wimberly, activism is an essential part of medicine. “We physicians need to let our elected officials know what’s going on in our practices, because they’re not at our clinics seeing our patients and learning about their problems,” she says. “So I’m their eyes and ears. I tell them stories about my patients to make it real for them, so they can see what I’m dealing with and how the laws have affected my practice and my patients. It’s my duty to make that real for them. If physicians don’t talk about their experiences, no one will know.”

Physician activism around minors’ reproductive health needs has never been more important: restrictive and damaging laws, such as those mandating parental involvement, are a growing trend in this country. “When legislators pass parental notification laws, they’re often thinking about their own children,” Dr. Wimberly says. “But we have to think about the young people who don’t have a stable or ideal relationship with their parents, or may be threatened with physical harm if their parents become aware of their situation. If teens cannot go to their parents, these laws may take away their access to healthcare altogether. It makes my job harder, and it’s frustrating. It’s not healthy for us as a nation to have these kinds of healthcare restrictions because ultimately, it’s hurting the very teens who need health services the most.”

Physicians for Reproductive Health serves as a resource for Dr. Wimberly not just on adolescent matters, but on broader issues of reproductive healthcare and advocacy. “The organization’s mission is in line with my values and with the work that I’m doing,” she says. “Physicians for Reproductive Health brings the pro-choice message to the forefront of the healthcare community, where it belongs, and gives me the tools to go out and educate others.

“I see myself as an activist for patients. Doctors can’t be complacent because when we take things for granted, it becomes easier to lose our rights. Education translates into more informed patients and better clinical practice. By educating other doctors, it is my hope that they will in turn make the lives of their patients better—and that’s what it means to be a pro-choice physician.”