How doctors are making a difference outside of patient care

By John James
Published October 28, 2020

Key Takeaways

Ear, nose, and throat doctors aren’t the only physicians who care about your voice.

Across the United States, physicians are taking on a leadership role in the runup to the 2020 election. In hospitals, on medical school campuses, and across social media, they’re mobilizing to boost voter registration. They’re forming nonprofit groups and homing in on their patients, some of whom are confined to hospital beds amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and their physician peers, who have historically voted at a lower rate than the general public.

Why are physicians pouring such energy into voter registration, an activity typically performed by activists, partisans, and bureaucrats? The founders of VotER, a nonpartisan doctor-driven nonprofit dedicated to helping patients get out the vote, put it simply: “We envision a more inclusive democracy. We are creating a future where those most hurt by the healthcare system are empowered to fix it by inviting their voices into the democratic process.”

While the effort doesn’t stem from one individual or belief system, there appears to be a feeling that good encounters and outcomes in the exam room depend on good turnout at the polls. But how did this movement begin and where might it go?

Ground to gain

If past voter enthusiasm is any measure, physicians are unlikely champions of the ballot box.

From 1996 to 2002, the last period for which comprehensive physician voting information is available, doctors were 9 percentage points less likely to vote than the general public, according to a 2007 study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.

Just this month, JAMA Internal Medicine published a study that revisited physician voter engagement by analyzing registration, turnout, and participation numbers in states with the largest number of physicians: California, New York, and Texas. In each election from 2006 through 2018, physician voter participation and registration lagged the general population, researchers found. What’s more, pooled physician voter participation fell short by 14 percentage points.

“The reason for this pattern of physician voter engagement is unclear, but low participation may be because of the fear of seeming political while practicing medicine, in addition to other administrative and psychological barriers,” wrote the study authors, who wondered whether greater voter registration among physicians might increase physician voter turnout.

Even so, some physicians and health systems have worked for years to increase voting among patients.

Why now?

The underwhelming voting record of US physicians appears to be at least somewhat responsible for today’s voter registration drive.

Of course, other factors are at play.

Take the COVID-19 pandemic, which has upended voting as usual across the country. As some states opt for more mail-in voting, others are reckoning with how to keep voters safe at physical polling locations. Meanwhile, as of late October, more than 44,000 patients are hospitalized with COVID-19, with less than 1 week before ballots are due.

Physicians have a unique role in American society at the moment, and some may consider their expertise necessary to strengthen civic engagement amid a public health crisis. The nonpartisan nonprofit Patient Voting, for example, ensures patients can vote from their hospital beds using emergency absentee ballots.

“As the pandemic has quarantined many traditional voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts, health profession students, clinicians, and hospitals have stepped up and taken on this civic responsibility,” Audiey C. Kao, MD, PhD, editor-in-chief of the AMA Journal of Ethics, wrote in a recent editorial.

At the same time, physicians and med students are recognizing that healthcare—and patients outcomes—are linked to politics. The public believes the same, as 22% of voters listed healthcare as the key issue in the 2018 midterms.

“Every day it is becoming clearer than ever that healthcare is heavily influenced by policies and politics,” stated Med Out the Vote, an American Medical Student Association initiative to drive up voter registration. “Our ability to care for our patients is being determined not just in the hospital or in the home, but also on the Hill.”

What are doctors doing to get out the vote?

Voter registration doesn’t end with awareness.

The nonprofit Patient Voting works with health systems, patients, and clinicians to ensure hospitalized and recently discharged patients understand how to cast their ballots. The group provides state-specific voting instructions related to emergency absentee ballots. In some cases, Patient Voting even works with hospitals to determine which staff members may oversee coordination efforts.

VotER offers a free Healthy Democracy Kit to all healthcare practitioners, which has tools like a badge with a QR code to help patients register to vote through their phones. The organization also has voting resources and best practices for community health centers, scripts for starting conversations around voter registration, and a digital toolbox that clinicians can employ to spread the word.

Med Out the Vote is urging medical students and professionals to sign on as poll workers to keep locations open and keep at-risk individuals at home. In a partnership with VotER, the organization also ran a competition that encouraged medical schools to facilitate voter registration and absentee ballot requests.

VoteHealth, another group committed to registering patients and healthcare professionals to vote, has taken its message to social media with force, enlisting physician influencers, and sharing a graphic designed to optimize the process.

The American Hospital Association’s We Care, We Vote campaign has provided similar resources to health systems to cement institutional support for the cause. More than 60 hospitals have reportedly launched voter engagement programs.

Physicians prepare for the future

Whether physician-led voter registration efforts will outlive the pandemic and the 2020 election season is unclear, but there are signs that suggest so.

For one, the work is widespread, spanning the country and countless healthcare organizations, some of whom have publicized their commitment to the idea before COVID-19 dominated headlines. Second, several physician-driven nonprofits and campaigns are not tied to this particular election. Med Out the Vote, for instance, is still going strong after its launch several years ago. And then there’s the fact that physicians aren’t just facilitating voting—they’re running for office. Consider Doctors in Politics, an organization dedicated to supporting Democratic and Independent physicians run for office. This year, the group is backing three national physician candidates and eight in state races, and it’s searching for 50 physicians to run in 2022.

Civic engagement, it turns out, might be just what the doctor ordered.

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