Meet Our Faculty: Laura Weil MA ’94

by Katharine Reece MFA ’12

With the ongoing debate over health care reform, the field of health advocacy is increasingly relevant. Laura Weil directs the graduate program in health advocacy at Sarah Lawrence, and has worked in the field for nearly 20 years. She is stepping down as director in order to return to the “front lines” of advocacy work—though she’ll continue to teach at SLC.

SLC: Have you noticed any changes in your field since the health care law was passed?
LW: Honestly, no. The implementation of the reforms is still way up in the air. We don’t know what’s going to happen or how things will shake out.

SLC: Why is health advocacy such a prominent field these days? Is it just the health care law?
LW: Not necessarily. There has been a lot of publicity about the lousy clinical outcomes our system produces. We don’t do a lot of things well, and we spend ridiculous amounts of money on not doing them well. Even insured folks are filing for bankruptcy because of medical bills, which never used to happen. The public knows that things are not as they should be, and this word—health advocate—is not obscure anymore.

"People don't think that we ration health care, but we do. If you can't afford to pay for it, you can't have it."

SLC: Is health advocacy just about health care?
LW: Definitely not. While there is a slice of health advocacy that relates to individual work with patients, it’s actually a very small sector of the field—health advocacy looks at determinants of health that allow people to live safe and healthy lives. Barriers are things like domestic violence, poverty, problems with food safety and security. In this program, we also think of social justice.

SLC: In what regard?
LW: People don’t think that we ration health care, but we do. If you can’t afford to pay for it, you can’t have it. The issues surrounding health care have to be solved with a finite pot of resources, and it’s rare that the needs of patients coincide with a way to reduce the cost of health services. But finding ways to reduce health care expenses will drive our system toward efficiencies, and that streamlining will hopefully create a more rational system—one that patients will find easier to navigate.

SLC: Have you ever gotten discouraged or wanted to give up?
LW: When you work directly with people who are in the midst of receiving health care, you deal with a lot of anger, frustration, and sadness. You go into this work because you want to fix it, but on the front lines you’re constantly bombarded, and the need can get overwhelming. Besides my work at SLC, I work for the National institute of Mental Health as a consultant, and I’m a member of an Institutional Review Board at Beth Israel—an ethics committee that has to pass judgment on any clinical trial using human subjects. I feel absolutely dedicated to protecting people who volunteer to enter clinical trials at great personal risk. Health advocacy as a field is hard, but it’s also wonderfully gratifying work.