Is Civic Engagement the New Frontier of Physician Advocacy?

We Can Do Better - Improving the Health of the American PeopleThe figure is simple. Health care plays, at best, a minor, and at worst, a relatively inconsequential role in reducing early death in America.

That means, where people live and how they function in their local environment, potentially matters more to their long-term survival than what doctor they go to, or what medicines they are prescribed.

That is a powerful statement about a complex phenomenon – what happens in our communities impacts health in profound and lasting ways. So if health is predominantly determined by community-level factors,* perhaps we should re-design the traditional medical model to place community at the center of health care.

This idea isn’t new, and is probably why Dr. Steven Schroeder aptly titled the article from which this graph was taken, We Can Do Better. One look at the data and it is obvious more can and should be done to address the social, economic, and political drivers of health in this country. But the question of who and how somehow remains.

For many physicians, taking on structural inequality may seem overwhelming or outside their job description. Common retorts I hear are, “This is a social workers job.” Or “This sounds good in theory, but how would it work in practice?” To the first point, the evolution I am alluding to is a systems-wide change in the practice of medicine, such that the way we conceptualize medical care draws upon the skills of an interdisciplinary team of practitioners charged with addressing social determinants of health. So while this vision certainly includes social workers (and public health departments, local government, social service agencies, etc) it also necessarily includes physicians.

To the second point, there is a long history of community-oriented primary care (COPC) theory and practice. It dates back to the 1940s, and the work of giants like Sydney Kark, who created a model of government-funded, community-based, preventative care delivery in South Africa; and Jack Geiger who directed 2 exemplary, community health centers in the Mississippi Delta and Boston, MA in the 1960s. Dr. Geiger’s integrated clinics were the first of their kind and used government funding to pay for community-level health issues, like hunger and housing. Today, there are over 1200 such clinics nationwide serving an estimated 20 million Americans, or 5% of the US population, annually. These clinics are the backbone of the national safety net and the front lines of the medical response to growing inequality.

But as the issues of poverty begin to knock on all of our clinic doors, we can no longer afford to ascribe to the notion that this is the niche work of a minority of physicians.

So where do we begin?

The ballot box.

Data suggests physicians have a relatively low rate of civic participation as compared with professional peers like lawyers and the general population. As local policy informs local resources, the ballot box is the space where physicians find voice to address the pressing needs of our communities, needs that have an undeniable impact on this nation’s health.

The future of medicine requires physicians confront the impacts of concentrated poverty, a tiered education system with gaps big enough for entire communities to fall through, immigration and population displacement, and racial and gender discrimination, among other indicators of health. Still, the traditional physician role and our current training paradigms largely ignore these modern threats to health and wellness. So in the absence of a clear system-wide charge, vote in a way that makes a difference.

If community health centers are the backbone of the social safety net, voting is the backbone of physician advocacy.

Civic participation is the new frontier for physicians to combat the effects of poverty and inequality on health in enduring ways. It is how we can reach beyond the limits of our clinical role to engage the issues that matter to our patients and our communities.

Visit Vote411.org to find a polling place near you, trouble shoot election-day problems, and find a state-specific voter guides.

Definitions used in this piece:

* Community-level factors are things like where you live, how safe your neighborhood is, if you have a park within walking distance of your house, or if the property values in your neighborhood are high enough that your local public school is well-funded and thus if you are of school-age, you are more likely to go to college as a result of living in that neighborhood. These community-level factors are intimately related to the choices people make or their “behavioral patterns” (as referred to in the pie chart above). For example, if your neighborhood is relatively safe and there is a park within walking distance of your house, you may be more likely raise your child in a lifestyle that promotes and values physical activity, a known method to prevent obesity. Conversely, if you live in a neighborhood that does not have a grocery store that sells affordable fresh produce, you may be more likely to eat processed food, and more likely to battle obesity and related health conditions.

For more on how community level factors or structural inequality affects health, check out my piece on structural inequality here. If you are an educator thinking about teaching these topics, check out my piece on teaching structural inequality here. This piece also includes the syllabus and reference guide I use when teaching on this topic.

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