Doctors & Politics-Lots of Giving, Not Much Getting

Medical groups and physicians have been donating tens of millions of dollars to political campaigns in recent years. Yet, doctors are still fighting for a seat at the table.

“Politics is the art of the possible.”

— Otto von Bismarck

“I’m a Republican, but I’m not a nut about it,” was how my physician-dad characterized his political leanings. From our discussions about political matters, I concluded that my father was a conservative when it came to business and national security and a moderate on social issues and the environment. I myself tend to mirror that philosophy.

Dad’s politics were fairly typical among his doctor colleagues back when he practiced medicine. But that’s changed. America’s doctors, long stereotyped as Republicans, seem to be shifting alliances.

According to researchers at Columbia University's Center on Medicine as a Profession, individual physicians are now giving a greater percentage of their political donations (55%) to the Democratic Party. A study of doctors and political contributions, published in a recent issue of JAMA, found that “between 1991 and 2012, the political alignment of American physicians shifted from predominantly Republican toward the Democrats.”

The shift may be due to more women in the medical profession and a changing doctor job market, with more physicians employed for nonprofits, rather than in private practice. Dr. David Rothman, who participated in the research, told Reuters: “the Democratic allegiance of women physicians is even greater than women in the general public. And if you are salaried versus an entrepreneurial physician you are again more likely to contribute to the Democratic side."

When it comes to organized medicine, however, the Republican Party still gets the lion’s share of medical money. According to Opensecrets.org, healthcare professional organizations gave nearly $70 million in 2014 and about 60% went to the GOP. And in 2012, about 60% of $153 million in political contributions went to Republicans. From 1990 to 2014, healthcare professional organizations have made $773 million in campaign contributions and 56% of the funds went to the GOP.

In 2014, the top medical organization political donors were, the Cooperative of American Physicians ($2.2 million), American Medical Association ($1.9 million), American Society of Anesthesiologists ($1.8 million), American Association of Orthopaedic Surgeons ($1.7 million), American College of Radiology ($1.3 million), and American College of Emergency Physicians ($1.2 million).

These medical groups also do a good bit of lobbying. Last year the AMA spend $19 million on political persuasion, the ACR spent $3.8 million, the AAFP $2.4 million, the AAOS $2 million, and the ACC $1.9 million. In fact, when it comes to influence peddling in Washington, the AMA is in real deep. Between 1998 and 2015, the nation’s most famous doctor group has spent more than $325 million on lobbying Congress and federal agencies. Only the US Chamber of Commerce ($1.1 billion) has spent more. Today’s doctors in the trenches must surely wonder what all that spending has gotten them.

And GOP doctors still hold sway in the big leagues of politics. Among the 19 physicians now serving in the US Congress (3 senators, 16 representatives and 1 delegate), the vast majority (16) are Republicans. And 2 doctors are running for the GOP nomination for US President in 2016—Dr. Rand Paul (a Kentucky US Senator and ophthalmologist) and Dr. Ben Carson (a retired neurosurgeon and professor).

Rep. Michael Burgess, a Texas congressman and OB/GYN physician, thinks more doctors need to run for and serve in Congress. When it comes to healthcare policy decisions, “not only do doctors not have a seat at the table, they’re not even in the room,” Dr. Burgess told RollCall.com. “And they don’t even understand that they need to be in the room.”

Indeed, doctors have a rich political history in America. Among the signers of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 were 5 physicians and 2 doctors helped draft the US Constitution in 1787.

When it came to political participation, my father made one run for office. In the mid-1960s he ran for a seat on our local school board (what, he didn’t have enough to do as a busy doctor and father of 8?). He worked hard at it but since he really wasn’t a member of the small town clique, he lost the election. “I got clobbered” dad told me.