Medical

Our Great Task: Physicians in Public Life

Spending years studying, to the exclusion of most other activities. Losing sleep. Incurring near- unfathomable debt. What sane person would sign on for this? Yet, every year, thousands of students pursue careers in medicine. Why?  We all have our own reasons – for many, it has to do with a personal experience with illness or a desire to help people. But we all have in common a professional commitment to serve and advocate for patients.

Interpreted narrowly, this commitment might be limited to the patients we treat. But viewed more broadly, it might mean participating in institutional or regional health promotion efforts, or even working to improve health at the national or global level. Rudolf Virchow, the father of modern Pathology, said that “if medicine is really to accomplish its great task, it must intervene in political and social life.”

No surprise then that physicians have long played a crucial role in advocating for public health and advancing public policy. For example, physicians were critical to the passage of seat-belt laws and public smoking bans, and they continue to be politically engaged in diverse public issues, from immunization, nutrition, and health access, to housing, criminal justice, environmental pollution, and inequality. We have unique insights into the impact of policies on people and communities.  And we have vital contributions to make, particularly because the public finds us far more trustworthy than politicians.

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Physicians vary in their involvement in public life. In the U.S., physicians vote at lower rates than the general population. At the same time, some devote their entire careers to public health, including CDC outbreak investigators, health commissioners, health services researchers, and FDA workers. And in the middle are the large majority – practicing doctors who volunteer on the side, helping to fight for things like seat belt laws.

The important thing is to identify your passions and find your own best level of engagement.  Whatever your interests or your politics, there are many ways to get engaged. Most medical organizations participate in policy-related activities, through such efforts as letter-writing campaigns, lobbying at the state and federal levels, and disseminating white papers to educate policymakers. You can also get involved in non-medical organizations or grass-roots efforts, where your voice as a physician will be welcomed and valued: You can work with patient advocacy groups, author op-eds, or even serve on your local school board. Wherever your passion lies, you can make a difference by getting involved.

SDN and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center are partnering to conduct research on physician engagement, and want to hear from you: What public issues move you? Is medical school preparing you to participate in public life? We are interested in YOUR views and experiences. Medical students, please click here to complete a brief, voluntary research survey — be entered in a lottery to win one of 20 $100 Amazon gift cards!

If you have any study questions, please contact Maha at [email protected]