Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Our divisive political climate and our ability to treat patients without bias

Shane Sobrio
Washington, DC, United States


Image courtesy of the author

Politics are divisive. That should not be a shock to anyone. However, the political climate in the USA at the moment is more than just divisive. Lately, there seems to be an underlying disdain for those we disagree with, in a way that even my grandparents say they have never seen. The current political climate pervades nearly every aspect of our society, from pop culture to sports, both once safe havens from the stressors of everyday life. Now, more than ever, they are political platforms, constantly reminding us of our differences and cementing our conviction of contempt for the other side of the figurative aisle. But how pervasive are these issues in health care? Could political differences lead health care providers to view patients differently? Could they create inner biases that affect patient outcomes?

As a medical student, my life has been consumed by medicine. However, during my third year at George Washington University in Washington DC, my life was consumed by politics as well as medicine, sometimes in equal proportions. As an example, Alice Chen, the former executive director of Doctors For America and wife of former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy was my supervising physician when I heard two back-to-back trauma calls over the intercom at the hospital one morning. Within minutes I had learned that the patients coming in had been involved in a politically motivated mass shooting at a congressional baseball practice in the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria, Virginia, just blocks from where I lived.

Bernie Sanders had his hernia surgery at the hospital during my second year. Members of Congress are seen by physicians here. Family members of famous politicians are friends and classmates of mine. Politics is a part of my life in DC, which I believe has given me a unique perspective as a future health care provider. At no point was this perspective developed more than on January 20th, 2017 during the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States.

George Washington University Hospital is situated just blocks away from many of Washington DC’s most famous landmarks, including the White House. For this reason, it is tasked with providing health care staffing for many major DC events like the Pope’s visit or, as in this case, a presidential inauguration. As a co-president of the Wilderness/Austere Medicine Interest Group at my medical school, I was asked to gather volunteers from the pool of medical students to staff the medical tents at the inauguration. As is commonly known, Washington DC is a very Democrat heavy city. More than 90 percent of DC residents voted for Hillary Clinton in the November 2016 election. And the demographics of my medical school are similar. Because of this, I had some slight worries about asking for volunteers for the presidential inauguration before the outcome was known.

Based on polling data, I assumed Hillary Clinton would win the election, and that gathering volunteers would be easy. However, there was a small part of me that left open the idea of Donald Trump winning, since surprises do happen and polls can be incorrect. For that reason, I thought that it would be smart to ask for volunteers before we knew the outcome of the election. That way, if Donald Trump were to win, I would already have committed volunteers.

The day before the election, I posted on my class’s Facebook page asking for medical student volunteers to work the inauguration. As expected, there was significant interest, especially from fans of Secretary Clinton, who saw this as an opportunity to be a part of history by witnessing the swearing in of the first female president of the United States. That is obviously not what happened.

People had a lot of different emotions on Election Day, but one emotion I had personally was guilt. I had asked for volunteers from a pool of people that were very partial to one candidate and now those people had committed to working an event where a candidate on the near-opposite end of the ideological spectrum would be inaugurated as president. I awaited the barrage of emails from volunteers telling me they would rather not participate any longer and I got ready to start my volunteer search over from scratch. I watched my email closely for days and eventually weeks, never once receiving the emails I was expecting. Regardless of how my classmates felt about the election, they were not going to let those feelings prevent them being there for others in a health care capacity. The whole experience left me feeling grateful, impressed, optimistic, and a little embarrassed.

So we return to the question: can divisive political climates hurt a healthcare provider’s ability to treat patients effectively? Unfortunately, I think it can because we are all subject to having biases towards people, and it is very difficult to prevent them entirely. However, I think that health care workers are in a great position to lead by example and show others that regardless of how we feel about one another’s beliefs, we will always do everything we can do help each other in times of true need, not just as fellow Americans, but as fellow human beings.



SHANE SOBRIO is originally from Reno, NV and is attending medical school at George Washington University School of Medicine in Washington, DC. He is in his final year and will be beginning residency in Emergency Medicine at Kaiser Permanente in San Diego, CA this summer. In addition to medical school, Shane spends his time with his wife and golden retriever dog. He also has a baby on the way, due two days before the start of his residency.


Spring 2019  |  Sections  |  Ethics

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