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Why Physicians Are Encouraging Their Patients to Vote

Doctor with an I voted today pin on his coat.

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Key Takeaways

  • Physicians are encouraging patients to vote and become involved in decision-making processes about their health.
  • Participating in civic activities like voting can directly impact your health. 
  • The general election is Nov. 3. Voter registration and absentee ballot deadlines vary by state. 

With the presidential election just around the corner, voting is well underway—with over 40 million ballots already cast. As organizations help voters register and request mail-in ballots, some physicians are doing their part by encouraging patients to become more actively involved in civic engagement and the decisions impacting their health.

Being civically engaged, which includes a range of activities like voting and volunteering, can actually make you healthier. Research suggests civic engagement is associated with better physical, behavioral, and psychological health and well-being. Voting can change local and national health policies directly affecting you. Health-related issues like access to health care and insurance costs are typically big-ticket issues for presidential candidates, and this year is no different.

Still, in the 2016 election, nearly 40% of the 90 million eligible voters in the U.S. did not vote. Racial, educational, and economic barriers lead to significant gaps in voter participation. But physicians are trying to bridge these gaps by encouraging patients to take part in the voting process. And they're incorporating this call for civic action into their usual bedside manner.

How Are Civic Engagement and Health Connected? 

Research suggests civic engagement such as voting creates a happier and healthier society. Oftentimes members of civically-engaged groups are more aware of resources through expanded networks, which increases their access to help and support—leading to healthier decisions. 

Manisha Sharma, MD

As a physician, it’s my moral responsibility to help you feel empowered about your health. And voting is a part of that.

— Manisha Sharma, MD

For Ravi Kavasery, MD, medical director of quality and population health at AltaMed Health Services and practicing physician in Southern California, encouraging civic engagement among low propensity voters—individuals that are least likely to participate in the voting process—is a top priority.

“If you look at communities where there are low propensity voters, these are also communities that are disenfranchised around health, and really require more social and political power in order to successfully impact change around their health,” Kavasery tells Verywell. “They’re the least represented when their voice needs to be the loudest.” 

When healthy voters make up the majority, state officials spend less on health and Medicaid programs, exacerbating health disparities for groups with lower voting participation.

“I tell patients if they have feelings about whether they feel like they’re getting good health care or they can get better healthcare, a lot of those things are determined by voter engagement,” Kavasery says. 

Manisha Sharma, MD, a physician in San Diego and co-founder of VoteHealth 2020, uses doctor visits as an opportunity to open up a conversation about voting. Sharma co-founded VoteHealth 2020, a non-partisan coalition of health professionals, as a means to increase the number of peers and patients registered to vote in 2020. 

“People come to me when they are most vulnerable. It’s the most privileged space to be," Sharma tells Verywell. "You have to honor and respect it. To honor and respect is to help them feel empowered about the things they worry about."

In her early 20s, Sharma was involved in a hit-and-run accident that left her relearning to walk for nearly seven years. As a patient, Sharma struggled to navigate the healthcare system.

“The healthcare system was designed to be broken," she says. "I realized it was a bigger problem. A lot of other people really struggle when navigating the system."

This experience inspired her to become a patient advocate. “I thought the best way to be someone’s advocate was to be his or her doctor. So I went to med school in my early 30s,” Sharma says. “Physicians and nurses and people in health care are natural stewards of good governance to pursue health and happiness."

Sharma and Kavasery encourage patients to vote because they believe health is a human right.

“We should all be able to get quality health care," Sharma says. "Yet, we have a system designed to stop people from getting help because it costs too much or you can’t find a doctor near you."

What This Means For You

You can register to vote, check your registration status, find your nearest polling location, or even request a mail-in ballot at Vote.org. Candidates, both at local and national levels, make important decisions about health care and can directly impact your health.

How Are Doctors Encouraging Patients to Vote? 

Many doctors and other healthcare professionals may be well positioned to encourage civic engagement because of the rapport they build with their communities.

“Healthcare providers are among the most trusted messengers," Kavasery says. "As a healthcare provider, it is my responsibility to give my patients the opportunity to overcome barriers to voting."

Kavasery discusses civic engagement with his patients in a non-partisan way. “When I talk to patients about this, I never talk about it in partisan terms, because it’s not the spirit of it,” he says. “Spirit is really about civic engagement and the recognition of having one’s voice heard.” 

Sharma encourages patients to vote in natural conversation during appointments.

“So just like we ask about smoking and seatbelts, you can ask about being registered to vote and build it into the way that we actually talk to people,” she says. “When patients come in and talk to you in an exam room, you ask them how’s your life going? How’s your family? How’s work going? Are you registered to vote?” 

According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, there are over 890,000 active physicians in the United States. There's potential for 890,000 conversations about voting, Sharma says.

What Can You Do to Stay Civically Engaged? 

There are a number of steps you can take to increase your own civic involvement:

  • Go to trusted sources to learn about candidates, such as non-partisan election boards.
  • Stay involved in local elections and national elections by making sure your voter registration is up to date.
  • Normalize political conversation by engaging with family members and friends.
  • Volunteer at civic organizations.

Whether you are a first-time voter or have been voting for years, physicians like Sharma and Kavasery are encouraging all eligible voters to participate in the process because voting can impact health.

“Voting has always been about health,” Sharma says. “As a physician, it’s my moral responsibility to help you feel empowered about your health. And voting is a part of that.”

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  1. U.S. Elections Project. 2020 general election early vote statistics. Updated October 19, 2020.

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  5. Association of American Medical Colleges. 2017 physician specialty data report.