Physicians positively influence the health of their patients and communities through work in multiple spheres of influence—an influence that starts with clinical care and expands to health system quality improvement, community health engagement, and state and federal policy. As this sphere expands from the clinic outward, fewer physicians engage at each level. While an increasing number of physicians participate in health policy advocacy at the state and federal level, far too few take the step of political involvement by serving in elected roles.
Physicians constituted 4.6% of members of congress during the first hundred years of the US Congress. Since then, direct physician engagement in politics decreased consistently through the latter half of the 20th century. During the past decade, however, there has been an increase in the numbers of doctors running for and serving in political office. Currently 17, or 3.2%, of all US members of congress are physicians: 14 republicans and 3 democrats. As respected community members and experts in healthcare delivery, physicians add an important voice to the work of creating and implementing policy on federal, state, and local platforms.
Physicians are uniquely suited for a role in governance. We are bound to a moral imperative of prioritizing health. As scientists, we are expert synthesizers of complex information who do not shy away from following whichever path data and information lead us towards, regardless of the politics. We, especially those of us in primary care fields, are gifted in making personal connections with people and in sharing deep empathy with those we care for. We value honesty, integrity, and transparency. By the nature of our work, we are skilled in bridging competing opinions and worldviews.
The dearth of physician involvement in the political process, despite our well-suited qualities, can be attributed to several challenges. In addition to unfamiliarity with the process, engaging with activities that fall outside the comfort zone of most physicians can feel daunting. Furthermore, the significant time commitment of managing a campaign can seem insurmountable for physicians wanting to continue their clinical practice.
Despite these challenges, physicians should consider serving in elected office. There are examples of physicians serving in nearly every level of government in elected office, from school boards to US congress. Depending on their role, physicians will be able to maintain varying levels of clinical practice while serving in government. With adequate support from seasoned campaign organizers and fundraisers, physicians can extend their sphere of influence outside of the exam room and into the halls of government.