Doctors and Politics

When I was a young pediatrician I took for granted that doctors could and should “stay above the fray” when it came to most things you read about in the newspaper – things like politics , economics, the environment. As medicine and healthcare  have grown increasingly complex doctors no longer have a free pass to stay out of the national conversation. In fact, quite the opposite, we have a moral imperative to lend our voices.

For example, we can’t stay silent on the environment. We know now first hand that human health is inextricably entwined not only with animal health but the whole planet’s health.  We see that what is bad for human beings – excessive beef consumption for instance  – is also bad for the planet – methane production and global warming. We understand how critical clean water is to our health, and the threat of toxic waste.

On a different front, we have witnessed first hand that financial profit in the US healthcare industry determines who gets what kind of care at least as much as medical science does. Even though tens of millions more people have insurance under Obamacare, this advance can go only so far without meaningful payment reform as well. Meanwhile, doctors are being pressured into a quantity-not-quality practice style under the reigns of corporate medicine, a trend that is bad for patients and bad for doctors.  The solution is political: payment reform ( single payer, for instance, rather than third party payers), and campaign finance reform.

We have to care about healthcare reform and and campaign finance reform so that we can continue the struggle to put patients over politics in a political system where candidates can survive only by special interest funding of their campaigns.  The moral imperative to keep the cost of basic medicines like asthma inhalers affordable cannot possibly compete with the pharmaceutical industry’s lobbying power in our current campaign climate.

And God help us, we can’t even stay out of religion, where extreme religious views on everything from reproductive rights to sexual orientation catch the attention of nervous politicians trying to win an election by being the candidate God would vote for.

So no, we can’t stay out of politics.  We understand that chronic illness is closely tied with upstream socioeconomic determinants, like poverty and community violence.  We understand that gun violence is a horrible epidemic that must be controlled. We understand that if parents are not earning a living wage, their family’s healthy suffers. We know that the a preschool child’s exposure to adverse events at home and in their communities – violence, war, substance abuse –  takes a toll that carries into their medical and academic futures just as surely as lead poisoning would.

Doctors need to speak out politically. We need to call our Senators about healthcare legislation  as readily as we call our patients about a lab result. We need to be as willing to write articles as we are prescriptions. We need to vocally support candidates that truly represent our patients.  We are trusted experts who historically have underused our power to influence public debate.  Doctors, take a few minutes a week to join like-minded colleagues in organized effort, (Doctors for America is my particular favorite)or take a stand of your own.  Patients, let your doctors know you would like them to be politically involved on your behalf.  This campaign season more than any other has demonstrated that we have no time to lose.




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