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October 6, 2016

Doctors' political leanings may affect their guidance to patients, study finds

Daily Briefing

    How physicians advise patients on politicized health topics varies with doctors' political party affiliation, according to a study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


    For the study, researchers from Yale University looked up political affiliations of primary care providers in 29 states where voters can register their party affiliations. The study involved only physicians who identified as either Democrat or Republican.

    The researchers asked 1,529 doctors to complete a questionnaire about how they would approach discussions with patients in certain hypothetical scenarios. Some of the questions involved issues that were considered apolitical, such as obesity and riding a motorcycle without a helmet, while others addressed politicized topics, such as abortion and gun control. The researchers received 233 responses.

    Key findings

    When asked to rate on a scale of one to 10 the seriousness of an apolitical issue, Democratic and Republican physicians generally gave similar ratings. However, the researchers found significant differences in the doctors' ratings of three issues deemed "politically salient":

    • Abortion;
    • Guns; and
    • Marijuana.

    Republican doctors were twice as likely as Democratic doctors to discourage a woman who had received two abortions in the past from having another abortion, according to the study. Republican physicians also were 35 percent more likely to discuss mental health concerns that could be related to abortion.

    When presented with a scenario of a man who uses marijuana recreationally three times per week, Republican physicians were 64 percent more likely than Democratic physicians to say they would discuss any possible legal risks with the patient and 47 percent more likely to encourage patients to reduce use.

    The study also found Democratic doctors were 66 percent more likely to discourage parents of small children from storing guns in the home, and they were less likely than their Republican counterparts to discuss safe gun storage.


    The study authors wrote, "Just as a patient may seek out a physician of a certain gender to feel more comfortable, the evidence suggests that a patient may need to make the same calculation regarding political ideology."

    Matthew Goldenberg, a Yale psychiatrist and co-author of the study, said, "We don't leave (our beliefs) at the door," adding, "Both patients and practitioners should be aware that there are these biases."

    Separately, Nancy Berlinger of The Hastings Center, a nonpartisan research institute, called the study "an eye-opener." She said the findings draw attention to decisions that people make unconsciously, adding that when it comes to political topics, physicians "can't screen that out just like the rest of us can't screen it out" (Blakemore, "To Your Health," Washington Post, 10/3; Kaplan, "Science Now," Los Angeles Times, 10/3; Neergaard, AP/Sacramento Bee, 10/3).

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