If we take this odd year as one that is truly odd in multiple ways – not just the final digit of 2021 but in its unique position following upon a disruptive year – then we find ourselves in an odd year like no other. It is not simply the year after a Presidential election. It is a year when we are defining our new normal.
In addition to these and other top-down approaches to increasing health equity and access, we have the opportunity to empower individual patients and healthcare providers to take action from the bottom-up. Voting—and civic engagement more broadly—are viable pathways for patients and providers alike to have a voice in shaping the policies that drive inequities and create disparities in health outcomes. As a central and often trusted community touchpoint, healthcare settings are a powerful place to promote access to the ballot box. It is imperative that healthcare institutions and providers engage in concrete and sustained efforts to increase civic participation as a means of empowerment and better health.
Family physician Dr. Karen Smith has been helping patients register to vote while administering COVID-19 tests at her clinic in Raeford, a rural town in Hoke County, North Carolina. Smith’s voter registration efforts stretch back to the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. Though COVID-19 testing and treatment has strained community health centers across the nation, Smith has maintained a steadfast commitment to civic health over the past few months. Smith said she believes voting is important because she sees a direct connection between government action and community health.
Our healthcare workers have been referred to as the frontline; they are also often the last defense. Too often, they’re seeing patients when it has reached the worst case scenario of diabetic coma after months of rationing insulin, or being put on dialysis because they couldn’t afford medication in the earlier stages of kidney failure.
It takes physicians and allied health professions advocating for their patients’ health beyond what can be done in a medical context. It will take giving everyone a voice in our democracy and getting people registered to vote, but it will not stop there. It takes mutual aid, organizing, advocacy, protesting, donating.
Civic health is vital to your own well-being and the well-being of your entire community. As members of a democracy, we are empowered to use the tools available to us — like voting, signing petitions, talking to our representatives, and taking action together — as we fight for what we believe can be better. The same way you look after your physical and mental health, you should be taking care of your civic health to make sure you are in the best position you can to do this.
Up to 80% of an individual’s health outcomes are determined outside of the healthcare setting due to factors such as unequal access to food, clean air, stable housing and educational opportunity. The disproportionate impact of the pandemic on Black, Brown and low-income communities is a tragic but predictable outcome of this inequality. To eliminate these disparities, we must empower patients to participate in shaping public policy — health and civic engagement are not two separate issues, but rather one and the same.