Clinicians are in a position of influence and can encourage patients to vote. Expressing confidence in patients’ ability to make a difference as a voter may motivate them to take action
Lifelong Learning in Clinical Excellence | October 22, 2020 | 2 min read
By Patrick Hemming, MD, Duke University
2020 has changed the way we do many things. We’re all thinking about new approaches to routine activities—shopping, socializing, visiting the doctor, and voting. During the early months of the pandemic, voter registration numbers plummeted as state and local government offices closed or went remote and in-person voter registration drives became impractical and unsafe. I started worrying about whether my patients would miss the chance to speak up and be counted. It became apparent to me that as a clinician, I had an important role to play.
I started thinking about how to approach voter participation as a healthcare professional. I began wearing a “Vote” button on my lapel, and for the first time, I began systematically closing visits with: “Don’t forget to register to vote,” or “have you made a plan to vote?”
I worried about whether patients would feel the topic was out of place—questions about politics may seem to encourage contentious or uncomfortable exchanges, particularly during a time when partisanship is high and many people report distrust or contempt for those on the other side of the political spectrum.
What I found surprised me. Although my patients’ views may not mirror mine, they’ve expressed gratitude for the reminder. Voting has the potential to elevate us as individuals into citizens working to improve the health of our nation. Similarly, we can elevate our patients to agents of change through the education, support, and resources we provide. If a patient seeks to draw me into a political debate, I find it best to deflect the conversation back to the patient, “I want all my patients to vote because it makes democracy healthier.” My Hippocratic oath and my duty as a citizen are compatible.
Marginalized populations especially may benefit from support from encouragement to vote. Low-income and minority patients suffer the greatest consequences when elected leaders ignore their basic needs. Several of my patients have expressed gratitude for the time that I took with them to explain the steps for how to vote.
Clinicians can also place voting reminders visually in their clinic and add information to after-visit summary documents. Many voters will need reminders as well as detailed instructions, since large numbers of Americans have never participated in an election before and may not know how or why to vote.
Would adding voter registration and participation to the health maintenance list alongside flu shots and mammograms add a valuable extra layer of encouragement for our patients as voters? Maybe.
Am I going to keep recommending to my learners and colleagues to engage their patients as voters? Absolutely.
Here are my 4 tops tips for encouraging patients to vote:
1. Wear visual reminders to vote, such as lanyards or buttons.
2. Ask patients if they have a plan for casting their ballot.
3. Find out details on voting in your state/locality and be ready to provide two simple instructions for how patients can register and vote.
4. Express confidence in your patients’ ability to make a difference as a voter.