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Former Congressman Dr. Phil Gingrey provides public policy and government relations counsel to clients on a variety of issues. Here at Phil on the Hill, Phil draws upon his long career in public service to provide perspective and context on policy topics such as health care, the federal budget, annual appropriations, regulatory reform, and life sciences.

Three Ways to Boost Physician and Heath Professional Legislators in Congress

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

I have always believed that doctors possess a unique set of skills and mental outlook that allow them to be some of the most able and conscientious legislators. In addition to their medical expertise and intimate knowledge of health care, the desire of these physician legislators to diagnose problems and prescribe solutions often puts them at the center of efforts to solve some of the thorniest issues the government and nation face.

The presence and influence of doctors can be seen in legislation like the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act and the repeal of the Sustainable Growth Rate formula. This influence even reaches back to the country's founding, with four signers of the Declaration of Independence having worked as physicians — although the American Medical Association (AMA) might have something to say about their clinical qualifications today.

However, the number of physicians in Congress, and the unique expertise and influence they bring, is dwindling. A recent article from Politico Pro points out that this number has dropped from around 20 several years ago to just three in the Senate and 10 in the House of Representatives. As a physician who served in Congress during that high-water mark, I saw firsthand how important having a solid base of physician legislators from both sides of the aisle can be.

The most obvious area where physicians can serve the public good is health policy. These legislators have been on the front lines of efforts to keep America healthy, and they know how the health care system works and how to improve it. They are also an excellent source of advice for other lawmakers on medical and health issues and the challenges of the health care system. If doctors continue to disappear from Congress, lawmakers will lose this invaluable source of information and insight.

So, what can we do to elect more doctors and health professionals? I suggest three initial steps.

Engage Medical Associations

The AMA, medical associations, and health professional societies must expand their outreach and education programs. For decades, as reported by Politico, such programs have been identifying and training physicians for a transition to politics with mixed success. It can be tough to convince any physician to leave a practice, especially if victory is uncertain, but improving outreach and preparation should help increase confidence and ultimately attract higher-quality candidates.

Reach Out to Other Health Care Professionals

As much as we doctors like to portray ourselves as the center of the medical world, we are supported by a host of other professionals. Nurses, psychologists, pharmacists and other members of the larger health care community all bring unique abilities and insights to the table. Increasing the number of these experts in Congress would also improve our government's ability to meet health care challenges.

Increase Diversity

We must increase the diversity of physicians in Congress. At a time when the profession is more diverse than ever, the average physician legislator still tends to be a gray-haired white man (guilty as charged!) With the proportion of female doctors continuing to rise, as well as a record number of women political candidates this year, it is time that their voices play a greater role in policymaking. The same goes for members of other diverse communities. These experts have dedicated their lives to helping others, and helping them extend that calling into government will ensure that health care policy is informed by those from the front lines. We will all benefit from their insight and expertise.