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A Word From the President: Five Key Questions in an Election Year

AAMC Reporter: January 2012

AAMC President and CEO, Darrell G. Kirch, M.D.

If the ups and downs of the primary campaign season and the incredible photo finish in the Iowa caucus are any indication, 2012 will be one of the most hotly contested elections in recent memory. Given the stark fiscal challenges and choices our nation faces, it also will be one of the most important.

While the economy, jobs, and budget cuts will be at the top of most candidates’ agendas, the future of our health care system also is intricately tied to these issues. The one certainty at this point is that the individuals we elect, from the top of the ticket to the local level, will make decisions in the next two to four years that could have profound effects on all our futures.

Given the importance of this election, I want to encourage our community to play an active role and to make certain our voice is heard. Our recent success in preventing massive cuts to Medicare support of graduate medical education during the super committee deliberations is a testament to the power we have when we speak with one voice – or in this case, when our medical students and residents speak out together by sending more than 70,000 letters to Congress.

Yet, studies show that physicians are becoming less politically engaged. According to a 2007 study by researchers at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, physician voter turnout is on the decline, with only 75 percent of physicians voting in three of the last four presidential elections. And according to that same study, physicians were “significantly less likely to report having voted compared with lawyers, teachers, and farmers.”

But voting on Election Day is only one of many ways we can engage in the debate. In fact, there are many opportunities before next Nov. 6th when our community, as individuals and institutions, can connect with the candidates to help shape the future of key issues for medical education, health care, and research.

One of the best ways to make an impact is to attend local town hall meetings and debates sponsored by the candidates. These are wonderful opportunities to ask the candidates questions about their positions and to raise public awareness on the importance of these issues. If you do take advantage of these forums, here are five questions I hope you will consider asking the candidates:

1. What is your position on federal funding to medical schools and teaching hospitals to support societal goods like the training of physicians and nurses, medical research, and vital services like trauma and burn centers?

2. Should the nation’s teaching hospitals continue to receive special federal payments that help support costly, stand-by access to health care services often unavailable elsewhere in the region, particularly for the most seriously ill and injured patients?

3. Given that the current physician shortage in all specialties is projected to grow to more than 91,000 by the year 2020, do you think the federal government should increase or decrease its investment in teaching hospitals and physician training through the Medicare program?

4. What role do you think the federal government should play in supporting basic medical research?

5. If you or a loved one were seriously ill, where would you go for care?

Time and time again, we have seen how the views of our elected representatives can be out of sync with the views of their constituents. For example, while the supercommittee was considering major cuts to hospitals and graduate medical education funding, a nationwide public opinion survey conducted for the AAMC by our pollster, Public Opinion Strategies, found that nearly eight in 10 Americans oppose cutting federal support to teaching hospitals that provide training for new doctors, special medical services such as trauma care and burn units, and care for sicker patients. In addition, the survey found widespread reluctance and considerable opposition to cutting federal funding for medical research, with 62 percent of voters surveyed opposing significant cuts in federal funding for medical research.

Perhaps most encouraging, however, was the finding that these positions transcend party lines, with significant majorities of Democrats, Independents, Republicans, and Tea Party supporters opposing cuts to teaching hospitals, and majorities of Republicans, Democrats, and Independents opposing significant cuts to federal funding for medical research.

I know that many of you share my frustration with the seemingly perpetual state of partisan gridlock we have seen in recent years in Washington. The results of our survey give me hope that there are some issues vital to the health and future well being of our nation on which we all can agree.

Yet as the campaign season heats up, I have little doubt that the partisan rhetoric will intensify and candidates on both sides of the aisle will try to point fingers of blame. Tempting as it may be, we must resist the urge to throw up our hands and disengage from the process. Instead, more than ever, we should commit to making a difference by asking questions of the candidates, educating them about our issues, and most important, voting on Election Day. Because if there is one other lesson to take from the photo finish in Iowa, it is that every vote counts.

Darrell G. Kirch, M.D.
AAMC President and CEO