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Can the Political Leanings of Your Doctor Impact Your Medical Care?

Oct 7, 2016

Politics plays a role in all sorts of things in life: dating partners, how we think about the economy, and, according to Eitan Hersh, the choices doctors make.

"We wanted to know for these doctors who have to deal with these politically sensitive health issues, whether their own politics was informing their professional judgments," said Hersh, an assistant professor of political science at Yale University.

To answer that question, Hersh took a list of every physician in the country and linked that to voter registration records to find out a doctor's political leanings. He then sent physicians a survey filled with scenarios not about politics, but about medical situations, which could be impacted by a doctor's political views -- things like recreational marijuana use or elective abortions.

"On the marijuana vignette, we have Republican physicians much more likely to say that they would discuss the health and legal risks of marijuana, and that they would urge the patient to stop using marijuana. They're much more likely to do that than the Democratic physicians," Hersh said.

"The Republican physicians were also much more likely on the abortion vignette to urge the patient not to have more abortions in the future and to discuss the mental health aspects of having an abortion," he said.

The study also looked at the issue of guns in the home, and found Democrats more likely to condemn the idea, whereas Republican physicians were more likely to counsel patients about safely storing them in the house.

Hersh said that suggests Republican doctors might be better equipped to talk about the issue.

Hersh said he wants the findings to raise awareness among physicians about questions of "implicit bias," which have been raised during the current presidential campaign. "At the same time, for patients and patient advocates," he said, "patients might need to think this through about what kind of provider they're getting if, again -- they have a health issue that's closely tied with politics."

The work was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.