Physician’s political party could affect healthcare, study finds

October 26, 2016

The care you receive from your doctor could depend on whether he or she is a Democrat or Republican

As Election Day draws near, a new study by researchers at Yale University reveals that Democratic and Republican physicians provide different care on politicized health issues, such as drug use, firearm safety and sexual behavior.

For example, the study showed Republican doctors were more likely than Democrats to discuss the health risks of marijuana use and more inclined to discuss mental health effects from abortions and advise women not to have more. Democratic-leaning doctors were more prone to advise people to not store firearms in their home.

 

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In the study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers linked records of more than 20,000 primary care doctors to a voter registration database in order to obtain the doctors’ political affiliations. They next surveyed nearly 300 of these physicians under the guise of studying social histories during patient interviews to examine whether political differences resulted in how the doctors viewed medical cases and offered treatment.

“We presented nine different patient scenarios based on politicized issues, and patients seemed to get different treatments and doctors talking about different things,” says Eitan D. Hersh, who ran the study with Matthew N. Goldenberg, MD. “When physicians are encouraging or discouraging different behaviors, you’re going to get different healthcare.”

Three of the nine vignettes addressed especially politicized health issues (marijuana, abortion and firearm storage), and physicians were asked to rate the seriousness of the issue presented in each and their likelihood of engaging in specific management options.

The researchers say that while they expected the results to prove their hypothesis that political beliefs predict the professional decisions of primary care physicians, they were still surprised at how clear the differences were when the results came in.

 

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“We even over-sampled Democrats and Republicans working in the same practice with one another and saw differences within a singular practice,” Hersh says. “From a patient’s perspective, the study shows you’re going to get different care based on the politics of your doctor.”

Despite the results, many in the medical community believe that party affiliation has nothing to do with care.

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Congressman Phil Roe, MD, is a Republican U.S. Representative for Tennessee, and has spent more than three decades practicing medicine.

 

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“I’ve said time and time again that I never once treated a Republican or Democrat cancer in my life; party affiliation should have nothing to do with patient care,” Roe told Medical Economics. “When a patient walked into my office, I didn’t know whether they were a Republican or Democrat, and I honestly didn’t care. My job was to provide every patient with quality care, and I hope patients seek out the best care available to them regardless of their or their physician’s political party affiliation.”

Morton Tavel, MD, clinical professor emeritus of medicine, Indiana University School of Medicine and author of “Health Tips, Myths and Tricks: A Physician’s Advice,” leans Democrat, but notes a physician’s response should always be based upon scientific facts, leaving the value judgments up to the patients.

Still, he says that as a physician, he has always prided himself on being free to advise patients about all health issues, including risks that could endanger their personal well-being and that of their families and loved ones-including talk about firearms, marijuana use and abortions.

 

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“This meant that I could inquire not only about immediate risks such as smoking and diet, but, among others, about whether a patient was using his or her seat belt when driving, or exposing family members to the toxic effects of secondary cigarette smoke in the home,” he says. “I was also free to inquire whether a given patient had a firearm at home, because of the potential dangers involved. In that regard, evidence shows that the presence of a gun in a home increases by threefold the risk of death for all household members, especially by suicide, when compared with homes free of guns.”

Discussions like these are exactly why Hersh and Goldenberg thought the research was necessary and they hope their study will lead to further analysis.

“Physician partisan bias can lead to unwarranted variation in patient care and awareness of how a physician’s political attitudes might affect patient care is important to understand,” Hersh says. “There’s been research on gender bias and racial bias, and we hope to encourage people to use this data to better answer the question of what’s happening with political bias.”