The survey by BMJ examined how political and current events have impacted the moods and stress levels of young doctors over time. The survey looked at nine political events and eight non-political events between 2016 and 2018 and questioned 2,345 participants on their mood from their time as medical interns to their time as residents.
The survey found statistically significant mood declines of at least 25 percent after the 2016 presidential election and subsequent inauguration, with women experiencing more than twice the mood decline as men following both events. Developments of a conservative political nature, such as the Muslim travel ban and the confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, also correlated with a decline in mood. By contrast, events of a more liberal political nature prompted a positive mood shift. The margin of error for the poll was plus or minus five percent.
“The directionality of these findings is consistent with evidence that young voters and voters with postgraduate education tend to identify as liberal leaning, and supports previous work showing a strong left shift in political affiliation among physicians over the past 25 years,” the report stated.
Politics in Medical School
The findings raise a key question of whether more left-leaning individuals are pursuing the medical profession or if medical schools are making students identify more as progressive. The answer is both, say two physicians and a medical student.
“I think young doctors are getting a heavy dose of indoctrination in medical schools, partly from the student section of American Medical Association,” said Jane Orient, M.D., executive director of the Association for American Physicians and Surgeons and policy advisor to The Heartland Institute, which publishes Health Care News. “In fact, social justice is now insinuated in bioethics and protocols concerning resource stewardship and the like.”
Orient says she doesn’t recall politics being a part of her medical school education at Columbia University in the 1970s. Now, students at medical schools increasingly engage in political activism from a “decidedly leftist perspective,” Orient says.
“Indoctrination and immersion and peer pressure work,” Orient said. “Conservatives fear career damage.”
Origins in Undergraduate Programs
Anthony Fappiano, a third-year medical student at the University of New England College of Osteopathic Medicine and an out-of-the-closet conservative, traces the left’s influence back even further than medical school.
“In my opinion, this is due to four years of college education with predominantly liberal professors,” Fappiano said. “Additionally, the MCAT (medical school entrance exam) is putting more emphasis on traditionally liberal dominated topics—especially sociology—rather than pure science.”
The spike in liberal-leaning students and faculty suggests that science and medicine are no longer immune to politics, a trend Orient says should alarm patients.
“The system comes first, and somebody else’s idea of ‘justice,’ instead of the patient,” Orient said. “It also means less time is available for learning medicine.”
Viewpoints Change with Age
There may be reason for hope, says Chad Savage, M.D., founder of YourChoice Direct Care and policy advisor to The Heartland Institute.
“While the study shows that young physicians tend to be liberal, the findings could simply reflect the students’ age and the fact that progressive politics tend to be more popular with young people,” Savage said.
Fappiano says he agrees.
“I have found that the working doctors I do my rotations with are more level-headed and at most, will gripe about their political ideology but never act on it,” Fappiano said. “The students are much more active in pushing political goals whether it’s through clubs, bringing in speakers, or changing course teaching.”
In the end, it may take the free market to truly break the liberal bias that has taken root in academia, Fappiano says. The first step is to lift the licensing restrictions currently in place, says Fappiano.
“The entire health care industry is controlled by the two licensing agencies, the National Board of Medical Examiners and the National Board of Osteopathic Medical Examiners, as well as the AMA,” Fappiano said. “If schools were able to create their own curriculum and prerequisites it would allow the emphasis to be put back on medicine, rather than political goals. This would require large institutional changes and deregulation of the field of medicine.”
Madeline Peltzer ([email protected]) writes from Hillsdale, Michigan.