How Medical Systems Can Help People Vote

How Medical Systems Can Help People Vote

Hospitals and health care workers are making voter engagement a part of whole-person health care

Credit: Scott McIntyre/Bloomberg Creative/Getty Images

Hospitals are the cornerstones of our communities. We treat hundreds of thousands of people each year at our clinics at AltaMed Health Services, Los Angeles and Orange counties, and Stanford Medicine, San Francisco Bay Area. Many of these people are young, disabled and/or low-income. We serve far too many people who are not engaged in democracy. Because policy at all levels of government influences our health, it is imperative that this change.

Recognizing this need, increasing numbers of U.S. healthcare providers are making voter participation a routine part of their clinical care to reduce inequity. More than 300 institutions and 30,000 providers have added nonpartisan civic health to their checklist of ways to care for the whole person, with the hope that helping people vote can address long-standing health disparities. People can advocate for their health by making ballots more accessible. This is not only for people who are interested in health-related issues like clean air, better access and women’s health, but also for those who care about the social determinants of human health such as affordable housing, food security, environmental justice, and accommodation for disabled people. These social determinants account for up to 80 percent of health outcomes, and are equally critical to promoting both individual and public health.

Health systems are well-equipped to address these inequities and federal legislation gives them the power to do so. The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 and guidance from the Internal Revenue Service support nonprofit organizations–like many hospitals and clinics–in nonpartisan voter registration.

AltaMed are just a few examples. In the run-up to the 2022 primaries in California, AltaMed staff and people from local civic engagement organizations reached more 220,000 new and low-propensity Latino voters within a five-mile radius of all their clinic sites, despite usually low voter turnout in midterm compared with general elections. In 2018, as part of the AltaMed Get Out the Vote campaign, which involved hospital staff and our partner community health centers, we contacted nearly 30,000 Black and Latino voters in primarily Latino precincts. Every 1 percent of total voters contacted by AltaMed translated into an 8 percent increase in voter turnout between 2014 and 2018.

Individual health care providers are also bringing nonpartisan discussions about voting into their clinics. Professionals at more than 700 hospitals and clinics nationwide have helped both colleagues and their patients register to vote with tools from nonprofit partners like Vot-ER. They assist people in registering, but they do not endorse any political party, policy, or candidate. The voter has the power to choose the best representative for them and to use their voice to advocate for their own health.

The COVID pandemic exacerbated and highlighted how social determinants of health affect health outcomes, and it spurred health care-based efforts to increase voter turnout. In August 2020, nearly 100 health and democracy partners celebrated the first Civic Health Month to ensure that people could access voting resources and cast their ballots safely during the presidential election. This coalition has since grown to more than 300 partners, including the National Medical Association, a professional organization that represents physicians of African descent as well as people of African descent seeking medical care, Dana Farber Cancer Institute, American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the American Academy of Pediatrics. In addition, more than 80 medical schools participated in the Healthy Democracy Campaign, helping 15,692 people.

Vot-ER has reported that in 2020, institutions and providers used the organization’s tools to help more than 47,000 people initiate voter registration or request a mail-in ballot. Of that number, 84 percent of people who completed the registration process did so successfully, and of those who registered successfully, 85 percent voted in the general election. Vot-ER registration was more popular among young people and people of color than the general electorate.

Major voices in health care have also taken a stand. In June, the American Medical Association passed a resolution affirming voting as a social determinant of health. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reestablished voting as a research objective in Healthy People 2030, the framework used to measure and improve health outcomes. The Association of American Medical Colleges also issued guidance encouraging teaching hospitals and medical schools to support voter access in their communities.

At a time when U.S. life expectancy has hit the largest two-year decline in nearly a century, one of the most fundamental ways to ensure that policy improves health is to ensure people vote. No matter who is running for office, our health is always on their minds. We must continue to take action at all levels, from the national to the individual level, to ensure that voting and health are part of the same conversation. This will encourage our patients and colleagues to advocate for their health and vote as if our health depends on it.

This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


    Ilan Shapiro is chief health correspondent and medical affairs officer for AltaMed Health Services, California’s largest not-for-profit Federally Qualified Health Center. Follow Ilan Shapiro on Twitter

      Shweta Namjoshi is a pediatric gastroenterologist at Stanford Medicine and is assistant director of health policy with the Office of Child Health Equity.

      Follow Shweta Namjoshi on Twitter102380Shweta Namjoshi is a pediatric gastroenterologist at Stanford Medicine and assistant director of health policy with the Office for Child Health Equity. Follow Shweta Namjoshi on Twitter

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