Our Voices Carry Weight
Author: Amanda L. Collar, MD-PhD Candidate, University of New Mexico School of Medicine
Faculty Mentor: Eileen Barrett, MD, MPH, Associate Professor, Department of Internal Medicine, University of New Mexico School of Medicine
I turned 18 in 2008, coming of age during a Presidential election, surrounded by President Obama’s messages of hope, change, and the importance of young people voting. I was engaged. I spent hours in the blazing New Mexico sun outside the Student Union building registering fellow students to vote and discussing the importance of voting.
On November 4th, I again stood in the Student Union building, this time in a long line waiting for my turn to vote and wear the “I voted” sticker as a badge of pride. Later that night, I watched the election results roll in at seemingly the speed of drying paint, but finally, President Obama was announced President-elect. He was right—"Yes We Can.”.
As I continue my education in an MD-PhD program, I continue to see the effect that elected officials have. From budgets that determine funding for biomedical research, public health programs, and healthcare services to laws like the Affordable Care Act, those surrounding abortion services, and mask mandates, the government has dramatic effects on people’s health.
Even at a local level, elections have tangible consequences. Indeed, individual state responses to the COVID-19 pandemic is a compelling example of the importance of local elections. New Mexico’s Governor Lujan Grisham and Secretary of Human Services Department Dr. Scrase were featured in the Scientific American for their outstanding response to the pandemic, highlighting that a Governor who values evidence coupled with proactive implementation of science-based decisions were key. As a New Mexican and employee of a lab testing patient samples for COVID-19, I see the tremendous difference this approach makes. Science is not a partisan issue.
Despite not being elected members of government, physicians play a vital role in health policy. The passionate voice of a physician or medical student resonates with voters. Physicians can be powerful advocates for affordable healthcare, gender equity, racial equality, firearms legislation (#thisisourlane), and so much more. Indeed, a 2019 Gallup Poll revealed physicians are viewed as one of the most ethical and honest professions.
Much like in 2008, we are in the midst of an historic election and I am still as ardent that our votes matter. To that end, I have spent countless hours advocating on behalf of this issue. I promoted a non-partisan, physician-led voter registration program, VotER. In response to what physicians see while caring for patients and the knowledge that many aspects of healthcare are determined via elected officials, VotER was created to assist patients in the voting process. Patients can register to vote, update their registration, or request absentee ballots, all while waiting for their appointment through a self-guided QR code. The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, with so many in medicine seeing the value of voting.
Additionally, I engage voters by volunteering for selected campaigns, using various forums to discuss healthcare issues, and using my personal capital to engage peers. I text potential voters on behalf of campaigns. This work provides me optimism, in an otherwise dark period of history. It is uplifting to see the enthusiasm of fellow volunteers and those we reach out to, showing that together we can work towards a better future. Other options to advocate include calling voters, participating in protests, volunteering at polling locations, and providing financial donations.
Physicians and medical students can also effectively utilize various forums to discuss issues surrounding healthcare. For example, I organized a legislative day at our state capitol to advocate for important patient care issues and acted as an invited panelist for a seminar on universal healthcare. Together, this advocacy work is restorative, helping to prevent personal burn out while working toward positive change. Whether we engage the public via opinion pieces, social media, or speaking on podcasts or television, our voices carry weight.
Finally, I share my passion for voting, assist in making safe voting plans, and discuss the merits of political candidates and issues with friends and family. I share perspectives that only I can provide them, whether it be a patient story that illustrates a larger inequity or the importance and realities of biomedical research and how it affects lives. This individual approach, although time consuming, often leads to fruitful discussions and action.
Every time I vote, I’m reminded of my 18-year-old self, full of hope. I’m reminded that my vote is for a better future for myself, my family, and my patients. My vote is my voice saying loud and clear that I care about equality, science, and health equity. Yes, we can.