What does it mean to be a progressive doctor?

A curious post popped up on my Facebook feed recently: “Another doctor running for office!” A picture of an attractive family was nestled below that exclamation, asking to show your support (in the form of dollars) for this doctor running as a Democrat for the House of Representatives. It had that sense of enthusiasm that implied I was obligated to be excited, but instead came off more like Jeb Bush’s perfunctory, “Please clap.” It joined a growing number of posts supporting physician candidates in the “Progressive Doctors” Facebook group (of which I happen to be a member).

Physician candidates are popping up across the country, gaining media attention as they decide to leave lucrative careers in medicine to join the fight for health care. These candidates are described as “progressive” and their sites are shared widely amongst the various self-identified progressive or liberal physician Facebook groups, garnering clicks, and maybe even some financial support from individuals likely unable to vote in the candidate’s district. However, when you visit these candidates’ websites, they are vague on the policies the candidate supports.

What makes them progressive? Is it the mere fact that they are Democrats running in opposition to President Trump? Is it enough that they opposed repealing Obamacare (along with the GOP’s proposed cruel replacements)? Is it enough that they are physicians doing this? I posted a comment on one post asking what made the individual a progressive; I never got a reply. No one seems interested in answering these questions.

As we inch towards the 2018 midterm elections, these physician candidates and others who may soon join them, need to have concrete policies to offer constituents, particularly if they are explicitly running as progressives who oppose Republican health care policies. They should have clear stances on single payer, a public option, and Medicaid expansion. They need not be experts on health policy, but they should at least be able to clearly state whether or not they believe health care is a basic human right.

The best physicians don’t just treat a disease; they treat the whole patient. In the same way, the best candidates should not simply abstain from non-health care related issues. They should be championing progressive solutions that touch upon every aspect of a constituent’s life, particularly the social determinants of health, such as stable and affordable housing, a living wage, criminal justice reform, and well-funded (and free) public education. They should oppose the privatization of basic public services. They should advocate for a fair redistribution of wealth. And they should make it easy for us to find their positions on these issues.

That Facebook post I mentioned earlier was the perfect “mindless like”; something that seems to hit all the right notes and allow people to reflexively click “like” without having to think. This isn’t how we should be scrutinizing progressive candidates asking for our support. As physicians and as citizens, we should be demanding more. We live in a time that calls for concrete, substantive solutions, not empty platitudes or partisan labels. Here’s hoping there are a few progressive doctors up to the challenge.

Surafel Tsega is a hospitalist.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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