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Physicians' Wake-Up Call


Physicians should be politically engaged

In 1990, in a former life as a political consultant, I was helping to direct the re-election of a prominent Democratic Florida state senator, Jeanne Malchon. Our research showed that Senator Malchon could be vulnerable to a well-financed opponent -- one Donald Sullivan, a successful surgeon and political novice. Despite his inexperience in public office, when Dr. Sullivan stepped up to challenge Malchon, we became anxious.

Sullivan received help from many powerful and influential sources. But despite a barrage of television ads, he could not overcome the strategy we developed for Malchon, and she won re-election. Two years later, when Malchon retired, Sullivan ran again and won a Florida state senate seat. 

When U.S. Senator Bill Frist became Majority Leader of the Senate in January, I couldn't help but think back on the Malchon-Sullivan campaign more than a decade ago. How many Don Sullivans are out there: physicians who would like to make a difference but don't know where to start? Where would healthcare be today if more of them were successful in their campaigns?

During the last session of Congress, only 1 percent of the members of the Senate were physicians; over 50 percent were lawyers. In the current Senate, Frist is in a position of power -- but he's still the only Senator who is also an MD, and he surely doesn't represent the views of all physicians.

If they want to help cure the nation's ailing health system, physicians of all political stripes need to take up the practice of politics. The American Medical Association (AMA), the American Hospital Association (AHA), and all the specialty organizations that lobby on behalf of physicians, industry, and the consumers of health services, would be far more effective if more physicians were in a position of political power.

No doubt some physicians are trying to make a difference. Case in point: the surgeons in West Virginia and trauma center physicians in Nevada who went on strike protesting skyrocketing malpractice premiums. Yes, it is a checkbook issue for physicians, but it's also an issue of patient health and safety. And for governors, legislators, and regulators to be more sensitive to the malpractice crisis and other healthcare-related issues, we need more physicians in positions of political power. Need proof?

One of a handful of states that has enacted significant healthcare legislation is Vermont. Their governor for 11 years was Howard Dean, MD, now a Democratic candidate for President. Political and healthcare policy observers offer little doubt that, without Dean as governor, many of Vermont's laws, such as expanding a state health insurance program for children and adults based on income level, would not have become reality.

This journal is dedicated to helping physicians improve the efficiency of their practices so that they can improve the quality of care for their patients and the community at large. If you aren't inclined to run for public office -- and I realize most of you are not -- that doesn't mean you have to sit on the sidelines. Remember, those who don't "do politics" ultimately have politics done to them. 

For too long physicians have watched as malpractice premiums have risen, Medicare reimbursements have declined, and bureaucrats have taken on an increasingly large role in decisions about their patients and the way they practice.  

Is it time for a change? I welcome your comments.
Politics and Your Practice is written by Ken Karpay, JD, CMC, associate publisher of Physicians Practice and a management consultant. He can be reached at kkarpay@physicianspractice.com.

This article originally appeared in the May 2003 issue of Physicians Practice.

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