Hospitals and community health centers are the cornerstones of our communities. At our clinics at AltaMed Health Services in Los Angeles and Orange counties and Stanford Medicine in the San Francisco Bay Area, we treat hundreds of thousands of people a year, many of whom are young, disabled, low-income, and/or people of color. . Too many of the people we serve are not engaged in democracy, and as politics at all levels of government shape our health, this must change.
Recognizing this need, a growing number of US healthcare providers are making voter engagement a routine aspect of clinical care to reduce healthcare inequities. More than 300 institutions and 30,000 providers have added nonpartisan civic health to their checklist of ways to care for the whole person, in hopes that helping people vote can address longstanding health disparities. Making the ballot more accessible can help people better advocate for their health needs, not just by voting for people who campaign on health issues such as clean air, better access to health and women’s or children’s health, but also for the social determinants of health – affordable housing, food security, environmental justice and accommodation for people with disabilities. These social determinants account for up to 80 percent of health outcomes and are equally critical for promoting both individual and public health.
Health systems are well positioned to address these disparities, and federal law empowers them to do so. The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 and guidelines from the Internal Revenue Service support nonprofit organizations—like many hospitals and clinics—in nonpartisan voter registration.
AltaMed is one of many examples. In the run-up to California’s 2022 primary election, AltaMed staff and people from local civic engagement organizations reached more than 220,000 new and less likely Latino voters within a five-mile radius of all of their clinics, despite typically low voter turnout in mid-term compared to the general election. In 2018, as part of the AltaMed Get Out the Vote campaign, which involved hospital staff and our partner community health centers, we reached out to nearly 30,000 black and Latino voters in predominantly Latino precincts. Every 1 percent of total voters contacted by AltaMed translated into an 8 percent increase in voter turnout between 2014 and 2018.
Individual health care providers are also introducing unbiased conversations about voting into their clinical practice. Professionals at more than 700 hospitals and clinics nationwide have helped both colleagues and their patients register to vote with tools from nonprofit partners like Vot-ER. They help people register without endorsing a political party, policy or candidate. The power is then up to voters to choose who best represents them and use their own voice to advocate for their health.
The COVID pandemic has exacerbated and highlighted how the social determinants of health affect health outcomes and spurred health-based efforts to increase voter turnout. In August 2020, nearly 100 health and democracy partners celebrated the first Citizen Health Month to ensure people can access voting resources and vote safely during the presidential election. That coalition has since grown to more than 300 partners, including the National Medical Association, a professional organization that represents physicians of African descent as well as people of African descent seeking medical care, the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and American Academy of Pediatrics. In addition, more than 80 medical schools participated in the Healthy Democracy Campaign, helping 15,692 people.
Vot-ER reported that in 2020, institutions and providers used the organization’s tools to help more than 47,000 people initiate voter registration or request a vote-by-mail. Of that number, 84 percent of people who completed the registration process did so successfully, and of those who successfully registered, 85 percent voted in the general election. More people of color and young people voted after registering through Vot-ER than among the general electorate.
Big voices in health care have also taken action. In June, the American Medical Association passed a resolution affirming voting as a social determinant of health. The US Department of Health and Human Services reinstated voting as a research objective in Healthy People 2030, the framework used to measure and improve health outcomes. The Association of American Medical Colleges has also issued guidelines encouraging teaching hospitals and medical schools to support voter access in their communities.
At a time when U.S. life expectancy has seen its biggest two-year decline in nearly a century, one of the most fundamental ways to ensure that policy improves health is to ensure that people vote. Regardless of the candidates or positions up for election, our health is always on the ballot. From the national level to the individual healthcare worker, we must continue to take action that highlights voting and health as part of the same conversation – one that encourages our colleagues and patients to stand up for themselves and vote as if our health depends on it because it does.
This is an opinion and analysis article and the opinions expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.