With two physicians--Rand Paul and Ben Carson—vying to become the Republican presidential nominee, the country is no stranger to the idea of doctors in politics. But Drs. Paul and Carson are hardly the first or the only doctors to run for or hold political office.
In the current Congress, the 114th, there are now 17 physician members: three senators (including Rand Paul) and 14 representatives. All 17 are men, and all but three are Republicans. (For a complete list, see the AMA’s Patients’ Action Network here
.) Political commentators believe the reason that doctors currently holding office are so overwhelmingly politically conservative is that these are the doctors who most chafed at the direction of changes in health care and were motivated to act. Rep. Andy Harris MD, an anesthesiologist from Maryland, told The New York Times
last year that physicians balked at the idea of lawmakers with no medical experience making decisions that could upend the profession. “For them, it’s a theory,” he said.
U.S. Rep. Tom Price, MD, an orthopaedic surgeon from Georgia, notes that even early in our nation’s history, physicians played pivotal political roles; five of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence were physicians. Those five include:
--Benjamin Rush, a Pennsylvania doctor who was a high-ranking surgeon in the Continental Army, who eventually became known as the father of American psychiatry.
--Matthew Thornton, who practiced in rural New Hampshire. When he traveled to Philadelphia for the Continental Congress he had himself inoculated against smallpox and then wrote about his ordeal.
--Josiah Bartlett, a physician who became governor of New Hampshire and was one of the framers of the Constitution. One of his causes was a campaign against medical quackery.
--Lyman Hall, who was dismissed from the ministry. became a doctor, left his native Connecticut for Georgia, and became governor of the state.
--Oliver Wolcott, the son of a Connecticut governor who trained as a physician but spent most of his life in public office.
Interested in learning more? There was actually an entire book called Physician Signers of the Declaration of Independence
published in 1976 in honor of the country’s bicentennial. Copies are still available on Amazon.
Next Tuesday’s election day is an off year for Congress, with only three seats holding special elections. So all 17 doctors will remain in office for now.
Doctors also hold state and local posts all over the country. Representative John Zerwas, a physician serving in the Texas House of Representatives, credits his mentor, the late Texas Medical Association President Betty Stephenson, MD, with preaching the importance of physician involvement in politics. “She made it very clear that if you aren’t part of the process, then you’re going to be a victim of the process,” Dr. Zerwas told the Texas Medical Association several years ago. “We all see what a phenomenal impact the government and the establishment of health care policy can have on our daily life.”
And on an even more local level, doctors hold positions in town and city governments across the country. This year, for instance, in Southport, North Carolina, J. P. Hatem MD, an emergency medicine specialist, is running for mayor against Jerry Dove, a retired police chief. Dr. Hatem says that after almost 30 years of caring for patients in town, running for office will allow him to continue preserving the health of people, the economy, and the environment.
Medical organizations now recognize the benefit of having physicians in elected office, especially on the federal level, to advocate for the future of the profession and weigh in on national issues like health insurance.
In 2010 the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons sponsored a workshop for physicians interested in running for political office. The workshop included campaign tips and strategies from several political experts. The workshop covered topics like how to develop a campaign plan, fundraising strategies, and the importance of polling. Renowned political consultant Eva Campbell, one of the experts presenting, said that physicians already possess attributes that are attractive to voters: they are well-educated, credible, care for people in need, and often own their own businesses. In addition, she said that doctors often have a dependable network of patients, colleagues, and others who can help build an initial grassroots campaign and solicit donations.
The American Medical Association, no stranger to politics, also encourages doctors to get involved. They are holding an AMPAC Candidate Workshop on February 19-21, 2016 to “help you make the leap from the exam room to the campaign trail. . ." Five of the current physician members of Congress are graduates of AMPAC’s Candidate Workshop and/or Candidate School (for those interested in volunteering for political campaigns). For more information on the AMPAC Workshop, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 202-789-7465.