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When going to the doctor, whether for a routine checkup or a more distressing matter, patients generally expect doctors to offer treatment and health advice from a purely neutral, do-no-harm perspective. But can a physician’s political affiliations affect his or her delivery of care, even unconsciously?
A recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found evidence that suggests some physician bias when it comes to politicized health issues such as abortion, marijuana usage, and firearm storage. For the study, researchers linked 20,000 primary care physicians in 29 states to a voter registration database, then sent a survey of nine patient scenarios to a sample of the physicians to gauge response and treatment options for each. Controlling for physician demographics such as age, gender, patient population, and geography, researchers found that physicians showed significant party-line bias when perceiving seriousness and treatment options for politicized health issues.
“Physician partisan bias can lead to unwarranted variation in patient care,” the study authors concluded. “Awareness of how a physician’s political attitudes might affect patient care is important to physicians and patients alike.”
For example, Republican-leaning doctors were twice as likely as their Democratic counterparts to discourage patients from having future abortions and more likely to discuss possible mental health issues associated with abortions. Democratic were less likely than Republicans to discourage patients’ marijuana usage or highlight potential health risks. Democrats also were more likely to be concerned about home firearm storage practices for patients with young children. But with issues such as tobacco or alcohol consumption, political differences diminished.
Some obvious limitations of the study are that only a few issues were explored, and the survey only included hypothetical situations and did not ask about actual treatment practices. But it does open up concern that physicians, even unconsciously, may engage in political bias when it comes to patients’ health. The exam room should be a politically neutral place for all.