We know that health care in America is riddled with both racial and gender biases, but it turns out a doctor’s political affiliation can also dramatically influence medical decisions.
A new study found that when it came to heavily politicized issues — like abortion, firearm safety, and marijuana use — physicians’ recommended treatments split along party lines.
Republican doctors were far more likely to express concern over a patient with a history of abortion than Democratic doctors, citing possible mental health repercussions and actively discouraging future abortions. Republican doctors were also more concerned about recreational marijuana use, saying they would discuss potential legal ramifications with their patients and encourage a patient to cut back — despite a lack of research that marijuana use negatively impacts a person’s health.
But when it came to firearms stored in patients’ homes, Democratic physicians expressed far more concern than Republicans. However, Republicans doctors were more likely to actually talk with patients about storing guns safely in the home, despite being far less concerned about the issue overall.
Eitan Hersh, an assistant professor of political science at Yale and lead researcher of the study, told me that what we’re seeing here is a perfect example of how doctors’ politically held beliefs influence the options and treatments they offer patients.
When it comes to gun safety and ownership, "Republican doctors might be more comfortable about the issue, which is why they’re willing to talk about it," Hersh said. "But for Democratic doctors, the only right thing to say in this scenario is not to store guns in the home."
What’s more, even when controlling for age, geography, religion, and gender, this discrepancy was evident. But Hersh found this was only true of highly politicized issues. When it came to less contentious health issues like obesity or alcohol and cigarette use, Republicans and Democratic doctors expressed relatively similar levels of concern.
The study identified the political party affiliations of 20,000 primary care physicians in in 29 states, and surveyed 1,529 doctors in total. The survey presented doctors with nine patient case studies to see what their recommended course of treatment would be. Twenty percent of surveyed doctors, or roughly 300 responded.
Patients should be able to access their doctor’s political affiliation as easily as their educational background
Hersh says it’s the first study he’s aware of that has examined how a doctor’s political beliefs might impact patient care. Given the findings, he said, he argues patients should be able to look up their doctor’s political affiliation as easily as they can look up where their doctor went to school.
"Right now when you try to look up a doctor, it tells you where they went to medical school, because there is a belief that you’re going to get different quality [of] care depending on where someone went to school," said Hersh. "If what we’ve found is right, Democrats and Republicans treat patients differently and patients should absolutely be able to figure that out."
Hersh also told me that we have to think about providing doctors with better training, as doctors are going to have to talk about issues of sexuality and drugs with their patients and need to be able to think about how their own worldviews can influence their recommendations.
"Doctors think of themselves as mechanics — given a certain set of symptoms, they’re going to treat it the same," said Hersh. "But obviously these kinds of biases exist, which can be jarring for someone as a professional."
Hersh said in this initial study he and his fellow researchers were unable to explore other politically sensitive topics, like end-of-life care or specific LGBTQ health care issues, but said they plan to tackle this in future studies.