Voter Mobilization: A Powerful Tool for Health Equity

As voiced by the late Congressman John Lewis, “The vote is the most powerful nonviolent tool we have to make change in a democratic society.” For health care professionals, it is also a powerful tool for helping our patients and their families make change in their communities. Together, we must empower our colleagues and patients to vote.

Voting and health are inherently linked, as discussed by Gordon in his 2016 Academic Medicine article, “How Can Physicians Educate Patients About Health Care Policy Issues?” In this article, Gordon notes how voting is our primary means of selecting the government leaders whose decisions shape health policy. He also argues that providing patients with some basic health policy education is our duty as health care providers. His ideas, published just before the 2016 election, were prescient.

Fast-forward 4 years and our nation is facing seemingly unprecedented events—from the COVID-19 pandemic, to a national reckoning with racism, to record-setting wildfires. Now more than ever, it’s clear that our elected officials shape innumerable issues that impact our health—from research funding, to policies that reduce poverty and address racism, to environmental regulations. Thus, health care providers must build on Gordon’s 2016 call to action and view voter mobilization as both our civic and professional duty.

This is especially important given the United States’ chronically low voter turnout and disparities in who votes. Physicians in the U.S. vote less than the general public. Ethnic and racial minorities and the poor vote less than Whites and the wealthy, respectively. Millions of people cite illness or disability as their main barrier to voting. Disparities in civic engagement are not surprising in the context of our nation’s legacy of voter suppression—particularly of African Americans—the effects of which are felt across the country even today. Thus, strategies that promote social justice in medicine must include voting initiatives. As explained by 2018 Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, “Voting will not save us from harm, but silence will surely damn us all.”

Fortunately, as suggested in Gordon’s 2016 article, there are many non-partisan ways for health care professionals to help our patients have a say in the policies that affect their lives. One is by helping patients register to vote in health care settings, a feasible strategy which has already been used successfully to register thousands to vote. Another is to educate ourselves, our trainees, and our staff members about registering to vote, planning to vote, and (especially in the era of COVID-19) voting by mail. We can also use social media to promote voting and partner with ongoing mobilization efforts. For example, the organization VotER provides “Healthy Democracy Kits” to health centers, including lanyards and badges with QR codes that patients can scan to register to vote.

In reading Gordon’s 2016 article, we are inspired to imagine a world in which health care professionals help heal both our patients and our society. The time is now for us to embrace voting as a powerful prescription for building a healthier, more equitable nation for us all.

By: Jean Junior, MD, MPhil, Michelle Lee, MPH, Cameron Nereim, MD, and Amanda Stewart, MD, MPH

J. Junior is a pediatric emergency medicine fellow at Boston Children’s Hospital and a clinical fellow at Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts.​

M. Lee is a fourth-year medical student at Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts.

C. Nereim is a fellow in adolescent and young adult medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital, Boston, Massachusetts. He is also completing a dual fellowship in advocacy and public policy through the Government Relations Office at Boston Children’s Hospital. 

A. Stewart is an attending physician in the Division of Emergency Medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital and an instructor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts. She also serves as the lead physician for clinician advocacy in the Office of Government Relations at Boston Children’s Hospital.

Further Reading

Gordon PR. How can physicians educate patients about health care policy issues? Acad Med. 2016;91:1333–1336.