Sunday, October 9, 2011

Medical Professionals in Politics

Author: Elaine Hirsch

Perhaps you're getting burned out in clinical practice. Maybe there's an issue you care about deeply and want to influence. Or the altruism that led you into a healthcare profession is now leading you toward public service. Any or all of these are reasons why doctors and other medical professionals are seeking jobs in politics. Whatever the reason, medical professionals' specialized experience make them ideal candidates for a range of political occupations. Even for those other than full-fledged doctors, it's not necessary to earn a PhD online or to meet the qualifications required for some positions.

The first political job one usually thinks of is an elected office. Twenty-seven members of the US Congress (two in the Senate, the rest in the House of Representatives) are doctors or allied health professionals. Former Vermont governor and Democratic Party Chair Howard Dean is a physician. Dozens of others hold elected positions in state legislatures, city councils, or school boards.

Elected office has the highest profile in politics, but it's not the only option for participating in the political process. Most elected officials have policy advisors who lend their knowledge and expertise to aid in drafting legislation. Some of these are full-time salaried positions, others are part-time and voluntary. The main qualification for such positions is expertise in a specialized field, which medical professionals certainly have.

Lobbyists have a somewhat notorious reputation, but they are an important part of the political process as well. A lobbyist works to influence legislation on behalf of someone else. Corporations, professional associations, and nonprofit organizations all employ lobbyists. Again the main qualification to be a lobbyist is knowledge and expertise in a specialized field. Lobbyists are often accused of pandering to special interests, but one person's special interest is another's fight for truth, justice, and the American way. Prime examples of lobbying related to medical issues are efforts to regulate alcohol and tobacco.

Another way to participate in politics is as an advocate for various patient groups or research endeavors. You can do this by writing papers, speaking to elected officials, writing grant proposals, or performing research. This type of activity would most likely be voluntary and not a full-time job.

Finally, there are countless appointed positions in state and federal health agencies. The Surgeon General is a political appointee who serves as policy advisor to the President. Every state has a public health department. The federal government has the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These agencies play a vital role in educating both the public and elected officials on issues related to health and disease. However only the very top positions are politically appointed. The people who do the work in the trenches are hired through civil service processes. They draw government paychecks, but aren't politicians.

At the local level, TV shows lead one to think of coroners and medical examiners as interchangeable and as being necessarily forensic pathologists. Actually, coroners are not always elected, are usually not the same as medical examiners, and in many cases are not required to have any medical training whatsoever. In some legal jurisdictions a medical examiner isn't even required to be a physician, much less a general or forensic pathologist! In some states county district attorneys or sheriffs serve as coroners. Doctors looking for a change of scenery may present themselves as highly qualified for such positions, whether by appointment or election.

Finally, there are many other government-paid healthcare jobs, but they aren't usually political and most are clinical. They include publicly funded county hospitals and military and VA medical facilities. Again, only the very top positions are political.

So, there are a number of different ways you can enter the political arena if you wish. You can do it full-time, part-time, in salaried positions, or as a volunteer. Decide exactly what it is you hope to accomplish, then determine the best route to take to reach your goal.

About the author:

Elaine Hirsch is kind of a jack-of-all-interests, from education and history to medicine and videogames. This makes it difficult to choose just one life path, so she is currently working as a writer for various education-related sites and writing about all these things instead.

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