Your Doctor’s Political Beliefs Can Change the Quality of Your Health Care

A doctor does his rounds on the wards

Your doctor’s political beliefs may influence your health care more than you think. | Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

When you lump the words “doctors” and “politics” together, figures like one-time presidential candidate Ben Carson are likely to come to mind. Carson, a famed pediatric neurosurgeon-turned-Republican political figure and best-selling author was clearly out of his element when it came to politics. A talented man, as all doctors are, Carson assumed his brilliance behind the scalpel could successfully translate to a career behind the podium.

Though he’s won over his fair share of supporters, he hasn’t been able to convince enough people that he’s presidential material. But Carson is just one of many doctors who made the jump into the political arena. Because doctors are highly educated and usually popular figures in their communities, some find success in politics. Others keep their ideological or political beliefs to themselves, and a lot of people might agree that that’s the best course of action.

A new study, however, has found that a doctor’s political beliefs — even those closely held or not communicated to patients — can have an impact on their behavior. That means that a doctor’s particular view on a given issue may actually be impacting the quality of health care you’re receiving.

The study

a doctor writing down notes

Studies show how your doctor’s views may influence you. | iStock.com

The study, published by researchers from Yale in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, says views on hot-button political issues like marijuana and abortion can have an effect on how a doctor chooses to proceed with a patient. When it comes to those issues, “physicians’ partisan identity is highly correlated with their treatment decisions,” the study says.

Ideological doctors?

Dr. Ben Carson giving a presentation

Dr. Ben Carson is giving a presentation. | Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Now, this isn’t to say a doctor’s particular ideological bent is going to ensure you have a disastrous course of treatment for a given malady — the research simply says a given physician’s political party affiliation can change how he or she approaches an issue with a patient and selecting a procedure.

For example, if your doctor is a Republican, they’re going to be more likely to advise patients against getting an abortion or smoking marijuana. On the flip side, if your doctor is affiliated with Democrats, they’re more likely to express concern about whether you own a gun and have kids in the house.

To reach these conclusions, the study authors looked at records of more than 20,000 primary care physicians in 29 states. They assessed nine different patient vignettes, including three highly politicized health issues. After sorting through the data, it became clear that “on the politicized health issues — and only on such issues — Democratic and Republican physicians differed substantially in their expressed concern and their recommended treatment plan.”

To sum it up, “Physician partisan bias can lead to unwarranted variation in patient care.”

Should you be concerned?

A doctor writing in a notebook

Your doctor wants the best for your health, regardless of politics. | iStock.com

Is this something you need to be particularly worried about? Probably not — we all have our own individual beliefs, political or otherwise. Though those beliefs may have some impact on our day-to-day decision making, most people make perfectly rational choices during the course of their daily lives. When it comes to professionals like doctors, it’s hard to think there are hordes of them intentionally prodding patients with politically-charged questions in an attempt to sway behaviors.

Political beliefs and health care

doctor talking to a male patient in an exam room

Stay informed and ask questions. | iStock.com

With that said, there are likely doctors who will attempt to sway you one way or another. But if you take the time to do your own research and remain informed on some of these hot political issues, you can be better prepared to ask specific questions regarding anything your doctor seems concerned about. On the topic of marijuana use, for example, you can go in knowing there isn’t necessarily a heap of evidence to support the idea that cannabis will hurt your health — research is ongoing, though.

This doesn’t mean you should ignore your doctor’s warnings or think everything they’re advising you to do has some sort of hidden political agenda. These are professionals, after all. But just be aware the research shows there may be some underlying biases that can influence what’s happening in the exam room.

Follow Sam on Twitter @sliceofginger