Physicians must exercise their right to vote

Vote. These four letters reflect one of the most powerful actions in human history – the act of choosing who represents you and your beliefs. As an immigrant child and naturalized citizen, I was not born with the right to vote in the United States of America. Yet, I remember the day I first voted. As I walked into the polling site, I remembered how my grandmother in India offered her thumbprint as her stamp of vote. She was able to read but not able to write. And yet, she stood in the long cue for voting at every election. Fast forward 15 years, and I was voting – an act of engagement in one of the most powerful democracy in the world – America. Finally, I felt like I belonged in America.

I am hard-pressed to think of a more engaging activity than voting. While I am not naïve to the concerns many hold regarding the electoral process, I know it is one step to addressing the concerns and improving the process.

When I read that physicians are the most civically disengaged professionals, I am in disbelief. Physicians represent a discipline that is held in high regard – part of leadership in the community. So, I find myself unclear on why physicians are not voting?

Physician participation in voting has been viewed as a surrogate for civic engagement and professionalism. Voting signals “a basic and simple act of participating in community and public affairs, a role that many scholars and medical professional associations have described as an essential responsibility of the medical profession.” Grande and colleagues reported that physicians’ voting was nine percentage points lower than those of the general population, and 22 percentage points lower than those of lawyers.

Many reasons are cited for lower rates of physician engagement in the voting process. These include: very high engagement in clinical work outweighs the desire to engage in the electoral process, work hours/clinical duties restrict the ability to reach polling places in time, significant responsibilities at work and home with restricted available free hours, perceived lack of electoral power to change policy for better, and lack of peer/role modeling in civic engagement.

Why is it important for physicians to be engaged voters?

At the start of our medical careers, physicians don white coats and recite an oath, the modern Hippocratic Oath. While physicians and students are committed to fulfilling this oath, we sometimes equate good patient care as the sole source of fulfillment of this oath. However, the modern Hippocratic oath also asks physicians to “remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body as well as the infirm.”

A physician exercising their right to vote is the most fundamental form of fulfilling this oath.

How can we encourage physicians and students to vote?

1. Make registering to vote a common topic of discussion like “get your flu shot” or “wash your hands between patients.” It is simple: “Remember – register to vote.”

2. Make sure every physician and student who is eligible to vote gets the chance to register. Organizations such as VoteHealth2020 and VotER are focusing efforts on this and have tremendous resources to help.

3. Go vote. Role modeling is important – it is an affirmation to peers and students that physicians have a responsibility to be engaged members of society.

These are small steps to engage colleagues and learners in the civic process. I would be remiss to not address the importance of specific changes at the society level, such as weekend polling, longer hours for polls to be open, voter registration purges, addressing gerrymandering of districts, and consideration of rank order voting. These are all important ways in which to ensure each vote is counted and each citizen’s voice is accounted for.

Yet, what we can do today is address steps one and two: agree to the problem and increase engagement/excitement around voting. Again, small steps with high potential.

Ankita Sagar is an internal medicine physician.

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