Medical students turn to politics

Overseas-education | Victoria Knight 20 Apr 2021

Inam sakinah and her classmates will forever be known as the students who started medical school during the Covid-19 pandemic. All of them had prepared for this step for years, but their decisions to become doctors seemed to carry even more weight when set against the backdrop of the events of 2020.

"People were needlessly dying while our leaders were failing," said Sakinah, a first-year student at Harvard Medical School.

"We also saw the crushing inequities the virus laid bare. That was the context in which we were beginning our journey into medicine."

To many, getting involved in politics quickly became as much a professional responsibility as studying human anatomy or shadowing residents on clinical rounds. Sakinah, for instance, is part of a group of medical students who channeled these concerns into forming a nonpartisan student organization, Future Doctors in Politics.

The organization, which launched in February, aims to educate medical students on the political process and show them how they can get involved in shaping policy and perhaps even run for public office one day. The group is working to establish chapters at other schools.

Neel Shah, an assistant professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive biology at Harvard, said he thinks medical students have always been interested in politics.

But today's pitched political environment makes them more inclined to speak out. "There is a greater degree of willingness to be critical of existing policies and norms, coming from students at a larger volume," said Shah.

Christopher Moriates, assistant dean for health care value at Dell Medical School of the University of Texas-Austin, said he's noticed a similar phenomenon. "Medical students have realized increasingly if they want to create healthier patients, their responsibility reaches beyond the patient in front of them. As students are recognizing the systemic nature and the social determinants of health, they realize you have to treat the system around you as well and learn how to advocate for changes," he said.

While Future Doctors in Politics isn't officially aligned with a political party, it promotes values and a mission that are typically associated with Democrats or progressives.

The growth of these organizations may also reflect medicine's increasing leftward tilt. Recent studies and surveys indicate more doctors identify as Democrats than Republicans, possibly in part because medical schools are admitting more women and people of color.

To Lawrence Deyton, senior associate dean for clinical public health and professor of medicine at George Washington University, it's all part of the changing attitudes of what medical students feel their job responsibilities should encompass. He thinks the trend toward activism will continue.

"It's not enough to be great at the bedside or at the clinic," said Deyton.

"When it comes to public health issues, the Covid crisis, racial issues, there is a role of the clinician to speak up. Our society wants to hear from us. Some people call this a political role."

Kaiser Health News (TNS)

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