Physicians’ political beliefs affect medical treatment

Doctors’ political beliefs influence their treatment decisions on politicized health issues like marijuana use, gun safety, and abortion.
A doctor writing a prescription with the logos of the Democrats and Republicans on either shoulder.
(Illustration by Michael S. Helfenbein / Yale University)

Doctors’ political beliefs influence their treatment decisions on politicized health issues like marijuana use, gun safety, and abortion, suggests a new study by Yale University researchers.

The researchers surveyed a sample of primary care physicians nationwide and discovered that on politically sensitive health issues, patients receive substantially different care depending on whether their doctor is a Democrat or Republican. They describe their findings in an article published in the Oct. 3 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“The evidence suggests that doctors allow their political views to influence their professional decisions in the medical exam room,” said Eitan Hersh, an assistant professor of political science and co-author of the study. “Just as patients choose physicians of a certain gender to feel more comfortable, our study suggests they may want to make a similar calculation based on their doctor’s political views.”

Hersh and co-author Matthew Goldenberg, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine, obtained the political party affiliations of more than 20,000 primary care physicians in 29 states through a database of public voter registration records. They surveyed a sample of Democratic and Republican doctors, asking them to evaluate nine patient vignettes, three of which addressed politicized health issues: marijuana use, firearms storage, and abortion.

(The vignettes presented scenarios such as a healthy-appearing 38-year-old male patient who “acknowledges using recreational marijuana three times per week” or “who is a parent with two small children at home” and “acknowledges having several firearms at home.”)

The physicians rated the seriousness of the health issue presented in each vignette and their likelihood of engaging in specific treatments. On only the politicized issues did Democratic and Republican physicians differ substantially on their expressed concern and their recommended treatment plans.

“Given the politicization of certain health issues affecting countless patients, it is imperative that physicians consider how their political views may affect their professional judgments,” said Goldenberg. “The evidence calls for heightened awareness among physicians and more training concerning our biases in how we address politically salient health issues.”

Republican physicians expressed more concern than their Democratic colleagues about the vignettes on marijuana use and abortion. Democratic physicians were more concerned about the vignette related to firearms. Physicians of both parties rated similarly the vignettes on non-political issues like depression, alcohol abuse, and obesity.

Democratic doctors were more likely to urge patients against storing firearms in the home while Republican physicians were more likely to counsel patients on the mental health risks of abortion and to urge patients to cut down on marijuana use and consider the legal risks of using the drug.

Yale’s Institution for Social and Policy Studies provided primary funding for the research.

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