The Physician as Voting Advocate

October 28, 2020

During a recent AMSA Activism Update, Dr. Alister Martin, an ER surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital, recalled his encounter with a young Latinx patient with diabetes. She had been admitted twice in a week with DKA. When Martin asked why she wasn’t taking her insulin, she told him about recently losing her job and health insurance. Because she had to pay out of pocket for insulin, she had been rationing it.  

“I had this deep pit in my stomach, didn’t know what to say. Of course, we helped her, got her out of DKA, admitted her, but I can’t solve her problem with a surgery. I can’t solve her problem with a nerve block or a prescription,” said Martin. “She can solve her problem by voting. We can solve her problem by voting.”

Inspired by these and other stories, Martin founded VoteER, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that facilitates voter registration. “It is time that health care providers and health care institutions use the privilege that we have, the opportunity that we have, to empower patients to have their voices heard,” he said. 

Martin was joined by three other panelists who agree. Representing different organizations, they shared a common goal – to enlist physicians and health care professionals in efforts to promote civic engagement. 

“I think there’s a real awakening amongst us in health care, and more broadly, how important every election is. Not just the federal election but local and state elections,” said Saranya Loehrer, founder of VoteHealth 2020. “I really do think we’re in a pivotal moment in this country and also for health care and health care providers to think about the role we can play, which is an enormously powerful one.”


How to Overcome Stakeholder Resistance 

Voting matters because civic engagement is a social determinant of health. Studies show that engaged communities are healthier communities. 

However, convincing physicians and other health care professionals to promote civic engagement is a process. When Martin piloted VoterER, numerous stakeholders had questions. “There are folks who have valid concerns and valid questions about how to do this in a way that doesn’t interrupt care,” he said. Another concern was whether patients would think their health care depended on voter registration. The process of listening to and addressing those concerns took a year, but ultimately came together. 

Marc Weatherhorn, from Community Health Vote, suggested that organizations focus on staff first. “You shouldn’t expect to be successful with patients if you’re not with staff,” he said. Community Health Vote has a long history of working with federally qualified health centers to institutionalize voter enfranchisement, and one lesson they learned is that efforts to promote civic engagement must be ongoing and not just in the weeks around an election. 

“It’s great to register people to vote. It’s great to get them to vote in 2020, but if you go away after that, then you’ve lost whatever momentum you’ve built,” he said. “Elections do matter, but a lot of times on Nov. 5, not only the organizations but the funders are done with the activity.”

Another lesson: Set reasonable expectations. “Grab the low-hanging fruit. Register the people who want to be registered and want to vote, then use them to help reach out to the community and register others to vote,” Weatherhorn added.  

For medical students, Katie Barry, coordinator at Patient Voting and current med student, recommends enlisting the help of peers and allies to overcome resistance to voter enfranchisement activities. 

“I think physicians in general are receptive. The big problem is with hospital administrators who put up a lot of barriers to anything that might seem political, even though we’re nonpartisan …,” she said. “But we’ve actually seen throughout the country that medical student coalitions have had a lot of success asking their physician mentors, their hospital administrators to get this out into the community.”




Watch the recorded video for the panelists’ entire unedited conversation.