Frustrated by their leaders' responses to COVID, doctors are taking action to change things themselves. Could 2022 be the year of the physician candidate?
He's a psychiatrist in Washington. She's a radiologist in Wisconsin. He's an anesthesiologist in Oklahoma.
They're separated by geography, party, and practice area. They differ in their ambitions, tactics, and goals. But they agree that the United States bungled the pandemic response, and now they’re taking steps to fix it themselves.
"COVID really illustrated to doctors that no one was coming to help us," said Dr. Hisam Goueli, a psychiatrist in Seattle.
"If we didn't do something," Goueli continued, "this would continue to happen, and patients would continue to die."
In addition to his psychiatry practice, Goueli last year founded Doctors in Politics, a political action committee which works to recruit and support physician candidates at all levels of elected office.
The idea stemmed partially from his personal experience: In 2017, he waged an unsuccessful campaign for Seattle City Council, garnering just 3% of the vote.
"I was just really naive to the political space and didn't realize the political machinery that existed, and how this was a gate-kept kind of place," Goueli remembered of that race.
"Although I had good ideas, although people really liked me, I just didn't have the political know-how or backing to really make a difference."
Four years later, he's working to make sure no one else has that same problem.
"I think that when Obama was in office, there was this sense of, 'oh, okay, I can just do what I know how to do and be a doctor,'" said Dr. Gillian Battino, a radiologist and mother of six in Wausau, Wisconsin. "And then, when Trump won, there was this realization that maybe I — and I think many Americans, maybe most Americans — had stuck their head in the sand a little bit."
Like Goueli, Battino pointed to former President Donald Trump's election as the catalyst for her political aspirations, but said working through the pandemic crystallized her desire to take direct action. Running as a Democrat, she's challenging incumbent Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), who has repeatedly spread misinformation about COVID.
"Unseating Ron Johnson, as a physician, I think it would send a message to the American people that Americans believe that science is real," Battino said.
The pandemic broke America's healthcare workers, and as new variants pose risks of uncontrolled spread, it doesn't appear to be ending anytime soon. But in spite of a growing conservative movement to limit public health powers, doctors are fighting back — running for political office to change things from the inside.
The political science of why science is political
While the pandemic may have spurred some doctors to political action, the politicization of medicine is nothing new.
"Science is and has always been political," said Dr. Matt Motta, an assistant professor of political science at Oklahoma State University who studies health and science communication.
"Politics is about who gets what, and that has so many implications for science," he continued. "What's changed is whether or not science is partisan."
In the mid-20th century, Republicans and Democrats held relatively similar views about science and medicine, Motta explained. That began to change in the 1990s, with attitudes towards science polarizing rapidly after the election of former President Barack Obama.
"One of the things I've shown in my research is that those feelings have become more negative on the right than they have become positive on the left," Motta said. That is, Democrats' support of science and medicine has remained relatively stable over the years, while Republicans' attitudes have grown increasingly more negative.
As one might expect, given growing anti-science sentiment in the Republican party, doctors' opinions started to shift too.
American doctors for decades tended to identify as Republicans and support GOP causes, public opinion research and political giving data has shown. In 1990, 61% of physicians' contributions to national political campaigns went to Republicans, with just 38% going to Democrats, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of data from the Center for Responsive Politics.
By 2018, 65% of physicians' political contributions went to Democrats, with 35% going to Republicans. Republican leaders' responses to the pandemic have only furthered that trend.
"The pandemic has really underscored the fierce urgency of the problems that we face, and I think has created a situation where you can't necessarily ignore the problems in a way that we once did," said Inam Sakinah, a student at Harvard Medical School.
Starting her training as the pandemic hit forced her to reconsider what it meant to be a doctor in that political moment, she said. Along with some of her peers, Sakinah last year started Future Doctors in Politics, an organization modeled after Goueli's group but with the goal of empowering medical students to bring about political change.
"We were putting on our white coats and taking that oath that you know every physician before us has taken to serve patients," Sakinah recalled. "We were doing that virtually, we were putting on those white coats through a Zoom screen."
"I think ultimately what that underscored to us is that the status quo is really not tenable," she continued. "We have a responsibility to engage in the political and policy arena in a way that ensures this pandemic doesn't happen again, that ensures that the societal vulnerabilities that are being laid bare are addressed once and for all."
The doctors in the House (and Senate)
Physician candidates and activists know that an official's background in medicine does not guarantee their support for science-based policies.
Seventeen physicians currently serve in the 117th Congress, according to the Patient Action Network. Fourteen of them are Republicans, aligned with a party and media apparatus that has enabled — and at times expressly pushed — misinformation about the pandemic.
Dr. Rob Davidson, an emergency room physician in West Michigan and executive director of the Committee to Protect Health Care, was blunt in his analysis.
Many of those congressional doctors, he said, are "a bunch of old white guys who were, you know, orthopedic surgeons or gastroenterologists or you name it, who own their own practice and got into this thing because 'oh my gosh my taxes.'"
Among those elected doctors serving in Congress, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), an ophthalmologist, has particularly drawn the ire of physicians across the spectrum for his behavior during the pandemic, refusing to get vaccinated, sharing misinformation about COVID transmission, and clashing publicly with Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who served on the White House coronavirus task force under Trump.
"I think that Sen. Paul is choosing to cater to a certain base," said Dr. Randy Friese, a trauma surgeon running for U.S. Congress as a Democrat in Arizona.
"These are conscious choices leaders are making," Friese added."If we had a larger majority of physicians in Congress, the ones that choose to pander to their base and give wrong message will be the outlier."
Others are similarly fed up with Republican leaders' response to COVID. Last fall, anesthesiologist and former state Sen. Dr. Ervin Yen announced he'd challenge Oklahoma's sitting Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt in the 2022 primary, pointing to Stitt's flawed COVID response as the key motivation for his campaign.
"Our governor has, in my mind, failed in multiple ways," Yen said. He rattled off a list of his these failings — from mask purchases which never materialized to the promotion of hydroxychloroquine to Stitt's repeated refusal to impose a mask mandate in the state.
"If he had mandated masks statewide back in June, we could have avoided about 70% of these 8,600 deaths," Yen said. "That's something to think about. That's horrible."
Representatives for Paul and Stitt's campaign did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
2022: Year of the doctor?
Despite their many differences of opinion, Republican and Democratic doctors interviewed agreed on one thing: electing more physicians was a good idea.
"We always learned that if you listen to your patient, they will tell you the diagnosis. And so the same is true in public service," said Rep. Michael Burgess (R-TX), who before seeking public office worked as an OB-GYN.
As co-chair of the GOP Doctors' Caucus and the most senior physician in the House of Representatives, Burgess is one of the more vocal proponents of public health safety measures and COVID vaccines in his party.
In an interview in his congressional office at the Capitol, Burgess praised COVID vaccines and the Trump administration's Operation Warp Speed effort, which sought to expedite the development of those vaccines despite many struggles with the distribution of doses once they were approved.
While Burgess noted that vaccine hesitancy is a "real thing," he repeatedly refused to acknowledge the role right-wing media and politicians have played in escalating that hesitancy, particularly among Republicans.
"That's not the story," Burgess said curtly when shown polling data which found 93% of Democrats had received or intended to get a COVID shot, but only 49% of Republicans said the same.
"The story is: We have a vaccine which is remarkably effective," Burgess continued. "So rather than focus on, 'oh look, Democrats are better than Republicans because look at—' Forget about it, tell people what's available to them."
Nonetheless, Burgess said that he felt he had an "obligation" as a health professional to "make people aware of what the facts are, what the dangers are to them, and to allow them to make an informed decision."
Many physician candidates spoke of a similar obligation, a desire to make a bigger difference in the lives of their patients not only in the context of the pandemic, but with their health more broadly.
Yet there was only so much they could accomplish from inside a doctor's office or hospital, doctors said. To really improve their patients' health and wellbeing, they needed to look outward.
"It almost didn't matter how good of a doctor I was," said Dr. Val Arkoosh, running as a Democrat for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania. "What I needed to be able to do was to put a grocery store into the neighborhood so that my pregnant diabetic patient could get fresh fruits and vegetables."
With the 2022 elections over a year away, it remains an open question how successful these candidates will be in their respective bids. Gerrymandering and polarization have meant fewer and fewer races are actually competitive each year, while many states have enacted voter suppression laws which make it harder for Americans to vote.
But candidates are not deterred in their desire to leverage their backgrounds to make change in their communities.
Pressed on whether he thought he'd actually win his race in Oklahoma, running against a fellow Republican on a pro–public health platform, Yen was clear-eyed.
"If the election were held tomorrow, I would lose against our current governor," he said candidly.
Still, he added, "What's the landscape gonna look like in November of next year? Is COVID still gonna be here? I fear it is."
And with Stitt steadfast in his refusal to implement public safety measures despite rising virus cases, Yen predicts Oklahomans may soon come around to his side of things.
"I think if that's the case, I have a very good chance of beating our current governor," Yen said. "Time will tell. Time will tell."
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.