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August 12, 2020

Election Day is coming. Should your doctor encourage you to vote?

Daily Briefing

    Health care organizations and providers across the country are working together to make it easier for patients and people in the medical community to vote.

    Welcome to the Covid-19 presidential election

    Civic Health Month takes off

    As of Aug. 1, a large group of health care organizations and providers have been collaborating with voter registration nonprofits to encourage more Americans to vote as part of Civic Health Month, a nationwide voting campaign that will last throughout August.

    According to Stanford University student Benjamin Ruxin, leader of the Civic Health Month campaign, voter registration rates have declined by nearly 70% in some states, largely because the usual ways that people register—including registration events and vehicle registration facilities—have been hampered by America's coronavirus epidemic. To help close this registration gap, more than 60 health care institutions and thousands of individual providers are participating in the campaign, the Associated Press reports.

    For instance, Alister Martin, an ED physician at Massachusetts General Hospital, founded VotER to create and distribute voter registration kits—called "Healthy Democracy Kits," which include badges with QR codes redirecting users to TurboVote—to hospitals and physicians' offices. Martin first launched the project in May and as of August had received requests from more than 3,000 health care providers looking to help their patients register to vote, the New York Times reports.

    Separately, Kelly Wong, an ED resident at Brown University, is involving her three-year-old initiative, called Patient Voting, in the Civic Health Month campaign. The initiative aims to provide emergency voting ballots to patients who end up in the hospital around Election Day, and to help them cast and submit those ballots.

    And medical schools are also getting involved in the campaign. The American Medical Student Association created Med Out the Vote to get medical students registered to vote and to help encourage voter registration on their campuses. The group also encourages primary care doctors to include a question asking patients whether they're registered to vote on intake screening questionnaires, according to the Times. Harvard Medical School student Jonathan Kusner, a co-chair of the initiative, said dozens of universities have showed interest in the campaign so far.

    For example, the UNC School of Medicine just beat Duke University School of Medicine in a contest resulting in more than 500 new voter registrations and mail ballot requests, the AP reports—and students at Harvard Medical School and Yale School of Medicine are launching a similar contest, as are students and Penn State College of Medicine and Ohio State College of Medicine

    Why doctors are encouraging voting

    According to Ruxin, the medical community's involvement in this year's election is tied to the coronavirus epidemic highlighting how voting can shape the future of health policy.

    And according to Wong, the sheer number of participants in this month-long campaign shows that the health care industry is shedding its typical reticence toward civic engagement. In fact, newer generations of medical professionals view civic engagement as part of "treating the whole patient," Wong said.

    Martin—who founded VotER after seeing patients struggling from poor health due to poverty, homelessness, and other social determinants—echoed Wong's sentiments. "We've been trained to solve these really complex health problems, but not everything we see can be treated with a prescription," he said.

    And while Martin said he was excited by the turnout generated by VotER—the initiative is currently working to fill more than 15,000 orders—he noted that the number of requests reveals an issue with the nation's voting system.

    "I wish this wasn't something that had to be done. Being able to vote should be automatic for all citizens," he said. "The health care system does not work for vulnerable people—full stop. We have to help them get involved in the political process if we hope to change any of this."

    Ultimately, Kushner said, asking patients to vote is akin to asking them to change other behaviors that may affect their health. "Just as we ask people to behaviorally modify their diet or their exercise or their health, we could ask people to modify their civics" (Marcelo, Associated Press, 8/9; Stockman, New York Times, 7/30).

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