Politics: An unlikely answer to the crisis of medical mistrust
The American Medical Student Assosciation and the ABIM Foundation partnered to launch the Building Trust Essay Contest. Medical students were asked to reflect on a time where they built, lost, or restored trust in a health care setting.
What could I say? I looked at her, two piercing blue eyes staring back at me over a yellow polypropylene mask. The mask had muffled her voice but the words she spoke, courteous yet firm, were unmistakable:
“No, thank you.”
She held my gaze for a moment longer before turning in her chair, reaching a hand out to the man lying in the hospital bed beside her.
“It’s our fiftieth wedding anniversary next week,” she added, almost as an afterthought, her gloved fingers interlacing with his – black and gnarled.
The clicking and whooshing of the ventilator echoed in my ears as I stepped back out of the room into the quiet hallway.
I had been on my sub-internship two months before when Mr. Marshall was first admitted, hypoxemic, gasping for air. I had listened as my attending spoke to his son over the phone to get consent to intubate. I had seen his heart rate rise, his blood pressure fall, and our team order one, two, three vasopressors. Now, on an infectious disease elective I was back in the medical ICU, Mr. Marshall was dying, and Mrs. Marshall still did not want a COVID-19 vaccine.
I have thought a lot about Mr. and Mrs. Marshall in the months since I met them: their pets, children, and grandchildren; the birthdays, vacations, and anniversaries they celebrated together over half a century. And I have thought about where we, as a medical community, failed them, and millions of others like them. How did they become so alienated? How have we become so mistrusted? Moreover, what if I told you that Mr. Marshall’s son had pressured my attending to start ivermectin? Or what if I told you that their real last name was Martinez? What if it was Ming?
Regardless of the origin – disinformation, medical racism, neglect of and disinvestment in marginalized communities – the roots of skepticism grow deep and intertwined. How else, despite the breathing tubes and necrotic digits, could a loving, devoted partner like Mrs. Marshall remain unconvinced?
So, there was nothing I could say to her then; but that does not mean there is nothing we can do. As Dr. Rudolf Virchow wrote in the nineteenth century:
“Medicine is a social science and politics is nothing else but medicine at a larger scale.”1
It may seem counterintuitive to suggest that the answer to mistrust of the medical establishment in the wake of this pandemic is to push it further into the bitterly divided, polarized environment that did so much to exacerbate the problem in the first place. However, when party affiliation is the strongest predictor of whether someone will get vaccinated against COVID-19, it is indisputable that partisanship is a social determinant of health.2
More to the point, it is key not to conflate partisanship with politics. I am not suggesting this; in fact, I would explicitly urge that medicine should not align with any particular ideology. Instead, I am calling for the medicine – its practitioners and institutions – to fully embrace its crucial role in the body politic. This means more advocacy education for students and trainees.3 It means more healthcare providers participating in community organizing, petitioning legislators, voting, and even running for elected office; and it means their employers and organizations actively encouraging and supporting this work. Finally, it means a greater willingness on the part of the medical community to recognize its mistakes, acknowledge scientific uncertainty where it exists, reject groupthink, and engage openly, honestly, and with good faith about policy disagreements.
Politics is not a dirty word. It is instead how a diverse, multicultural, pluralistic society solves its most pressing issues; and a revitalized civic discourse is the only way that we will address and rebuild public trust in medicine.
Teva Brender is a first-year internal medicine resident at the University of California, San Francisco. He completed his medical degree at Oregon Health & Science University. His academic interests include health policy, physician advocacy, and narrative medicine. In his free time he enjoys reading, cooking, rock-climbing, and spending time with his fiancé and their miniature wire-haired dachshund Winston.
- Mackenbach JP. Politics is nothing but medicine at a larger scale: reflections on public health’s biggest idea. J Epidemiol Community Health. 2009 Mar;63(3):181-4. doi: 10.1136/jech.2008.077032. Epub 2008 Dec 3. PMID: 19052033.
- Kirzinger A, Kearney A, Hamel L, Brodie M. KFF COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor: The Increasing Importance of Partisanship in Predicting COVID-19 Vaccination Status. Kaiser Family Foundation. Published November, 16 2021. https://www.kff.org/coronavirus-covid-19/poll-finding/importance-of-partisanship-predicting-vaccination-status/?utm_campaign=KFF-2021-polling-surveys&utm_medium=email&_hsmi=2&_hsenc=p2ANqtz–Da1u1V7IKYdhRp6Bka4x7FhGIifNIszjMBdITNNweqiz1Lr3KqBkI33Wd6F7T6mGuuNfn8klOKaFeolETdxO1-AsIZg&utm_content=2&utm_source=hs_email. Accessed May 17, 2022.
- Brender TD, Plinke W, Arora VM, Zhu JM. Prevalence and Characteristics of Advocacy Curricula in U.S. Medical Schools. Acad Med. 2021 Nov 1;96(11):1586-1591. doi: 10.1097/ACM.0000000000004173. PMID: 34039856.