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How Personal Politics Enter Your Doctor’s Office

A new survey connects doctors’ political views to their opinions on issues like marijuana use and abortion.

By Nathan Collins


(Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

We might reasonably hope the treatments and advice offered by our doctors is independent of any political views or biases. But a new survey suggests otherwise: Republican doctors view health issues such as marijuana use and abortion as more serious than their Democrat counterparts, which in turn affects their recommended courses of action.

“Physicians frequently interact with patients about politically salient health issues, such as drug use, firearm safety, and sexual behavior,” Yale University researchers Eitan Hersh and Matthew Goldenberg write today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The question is, could doctors’ partisan leanings actually influence patient care?

Certainly there’s reason to believe they might. Treatment decisions are known to vary by geographic region, doctor’s gender, and patients’ race and ethnicity. There’s also evidence that physicians’ views on the Affordable Care Act are split along party lines. “Just as with other biases, a political or ideological bias might influence medical treatment, particularly on politically salient issues,” Hersh and Goldenberg write.

To see what influence politics has on treatment, Hersh and Goldenberg surveyed 233 doctors whom they’d previously identified as Republican or Democrat using voter registration data from Catalist. The survey presented nine hypothetical patients and asked each doctor to rate, on a scale of zero to 10, the gravity of their respective health issues, in addition to any suggested treatments or recommendations. Some patients had largely apolitical health concerns, such as alcoholism or obesity; others’ issues were more politicized: a regular marijuana smoker, a parent who kept guns in a home with small children, or a woman who’d had several abortions.

Republican doctors were a bit more likely to suggest active treatments or interventions.

Hersh and Goldenberg found that Republicans and Democrats differed on the most politicized health issues. Democrats rated the seriousness of firearms in the home a point higher on average than Republicans, but rated abortion and marijuana about a point less on average. That effect is largely independent of the doctor’s gender and church attendance, the authors found.

Republicans were also more likely than Democrats to recommend patients cut back on marijuana and consider the drug’s health and legal risks. Likewise, the odds were higher that Republicans would discourage any future abortions and discuss the procedure’s mental-health implications. Republicans did not, however, differ from Democrats on recommendations on guns. Overall, Republican doctors were a bit more likely to suggest active treatments or interventions than Democrats.

The survey does have one important limitation: Hersh and Goldenberg originally contacted a much larger group of doctors than they eventually heard back from, which raises the possibility that the results are not representative of American doctors in general (although several diagnostic tests suggest that may not be a major concern).

“For patients, our study suggests that they may need to be aware of their physician’s political worldview, especially if they need medical counsel on politically sensitive issues,” Hersh and Goldenberg write. “For physicians, the evidence calls for heightened awareness and training surrounding treatment on politically salient issues. Given the politicization of certain health issues, it is imperative that physicians consider how their own political views may impact their professional judgments.”