I think all medics, whether in training or graduated, should possess a political opinion. One they can stand by and one they can express. As a medic myself, I’ve noticed, we are generally socialised to focus solely on delivering the best care to patients and to remain neutral when it comes to politics. But the reality is that politics affects us in more overt ways than we even begin to realise, especially in healthcare.
Initially, my personal observations drove me to write this blog post. When dealing with internal politics especially in academia, institutional racism and persistent inequality etc. etc., I am often told to keep my head down and mind my own business. Sometimes this comes from a place of love and concern, other times it doesn’t. Nonetheless, I am typically advised to take the path of least resistance and in all honesty, there are times where I genuinely internalise this.
This is a trend that I have noticed amongst other medics. Often we are told to concentrate on our career and ignore the politics that dictate how we do our job. A few weeks ago, I witnessed medical students face some criticism for speaking out on political issues. I thought to myself, there’s really no need for our opinions to be policed because society says so.
Medical education does play a major role in how we are expected to remain neutral. Often medical students are taught to memorise and learn things by the book - not to challenge why things are the way they are. I have never been asked to challenge those who teach me - because the doctor knows it all right? - it does feel rather paternalistic. Not to knock their experience at all but all professions may have individuals that exhibit some form of ignorance. So when I intercalated in Global Health, I was shocked by how I was encouraged to argue, even with academic staff. I feel as though this is a privilege that not all medical students receive.
Oftentimes observing a stance of neutrality may manifest itself as it’s not my place, I'm just here to do my job, I’m just a medic - this is all too much. There’s definitely a bit more nuance involved - linked to the intersection between misogyny, class, race, age and sexuality - but the point still stands: we don’t like to talk about politics.
We need to remember that the field of healthcare is inherently political and very messy. Not participating in political debates not only does us a disservice but from a more ‘selfless’ point of view our patients too. Politics can also influence individuals at not only the macro, state level but also on an individual and interpersonal level.
I’ll give a few examples.
Let’s use the case study of COVID-19 and the subsequent government decisions. If we rewind to mid-2020, there was a lack of PPE, a series of ill-thought out government decisions, and the curious case of pre-infidelity Matt Hancock. Doctors had absolutely no choice but to engage in politics because the value of patient life was neglected. Healthcare professionals went unprotected, hundreds of thousands of patients sadly passed, people of colour were dying from COVID at alarming rates. And as much as there is only so much you can do when you are fighting an entity you cannot see (a virus), the majority of these deaths were avoidable, because of the government’s incompetence. During this time, I saw more healthcare professionals speak out and criticise the actions of the government, something that went against the status quo of remaining silent but was also very necessary.
Politics does not just stop there, we also need to look at how it manifests within our institutions. Let’s look at medical education and its role in medical racism. Medical schools solely focused on teaching medical conditions on white skin, despite 14% of the population being from minority ethnic backgrounds. To diagnose conditions on darker skin, students had to make that change (shoutout to Malone Mukwende with Mind the Gap).
Perhaps you want to think about it in terms of tuition fees. Medicine has become a profession that is more accessible to the wealthy. To sustain yourself in the latter years of medical school can be an issue for people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and with other extenuating circumstances. I’ve heard numerous stories of medical students having to work ungodly hours whilst studying full-time and avoid the opportunity to intercalate due to financial difficulties. Sure there are scholarships and bursaries, but not all are accessible. We have to start questioning whether this is something that happens by chance or whether those in the government decide to put students from less privileged backgrounds in precarious situations. The same could be argued for university in general.
There are countless examples, such as the junior doctor contract, medical ethics and postcode lotteries. Irrespective of the example, it is evident that there are a lot of aspects of the system that we need to question.
You may be thinking, what is the point? Why do I, as an individual, need to care about politics? You'd be surprised by how you can build a platform or following of people who share similar views to you. You’d be surprised by how you can spark a whole conversation through just one tweet or even one TikTok. You’d be surprised by how much can change if only a few people are inspired by the work you do.
Leaving critical decisions to those who do not have the best interests of various demographics at heart, is not a risk worth taking. Most movements in the past would not have come into fruition if people dared not to challenge authority and the politics that governed society. I think medics need to do just this.
How to get more involved in politics
I’m not expecting every medic to run for Prime Minister or become notable political activists. Remember, not all activism is done on the ground and not all is done via social media. So here are some suggestions to get clued up:
Get reading! Allocate time to keep up to date with major news outlets and read the stories that are out there. Signing up to newsletters may help. Once you have read an article, challenge it, especially with opinion pieces. There is a high likelihood that you may not agree with the points raised.
Write blog posts on the issues you see - could literally be about anything.
Ask questions to leadership teams within hospitals. Is there a lack of transparency within your institution? If so, raise these questions by sending emails and by speaking to necessary individuals.
Form a group to discuss political issues.
Social media is a great way to critique politics. Be mindful of the things you see online because some people just speak pure air.
Try to acquire the experience to have more positions of authority to make positive change.
Don’t forget the power of numbers. If you want to exercise change, spreading the word certainly helps.
The purpose of this post is not to solely attack medics for their neutrality but to encourage medics to have more of a political opinion. Because believe me I have been guilty. Don’t let societal expectations limit you from speaking out.
Written by: Bimpe Adeyemi (Co-Founder of The Black & Forth Platform)