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Beyond the Walls of Hospitals: Life as a Physician-Congressman

Currently, 20 physicians hold seats in the US Congress. Their training in the medical profession has instilled within them a unique skill among politicians—the capacity to listen. Not unlike the diagnostic process, a congressman must listen to those citizens that he or she represents and establish the main concern and the plan to address that concern.

In speaking with two of the current physician-congressmen, I learned that listening to citizens as a US congressman very much resembles listening to a patient, only now there are millions of ‘patients’ in the waiting room looking for answers to their problems. Congressman Jim McDermott, MD of the seventh congressional district of Washington and Congressman Tom Price, MD of the sixth congressional district of Georgia recently shared with me their journeys into the halls of Congress along with their thoughts on the skills developed in medical practice that have allowed them to succeed as congressmen.

Both of the congressmen I interviewed are members of the House Committee on the Budget and the House Committee of Ways and Means Subcommittee on Health. Price also holds a seat on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce in the Health, Employment, Labor, and Pensions Subcommittee and the Workforce Protections Subcommittee. They are both considered leaders based on the amount of support they receive in the form of co-sponsors for the bills that they sponsor.

Price, an orthopedic surgeon and Republican, comes from the opposite end of the medical practice spectrum from McDermott, a Democrat who has worked as a psychiatrist and cared for veterans returning from the Vietnam War. Price identified the responsibility of leading a surgical team as the foundation for the leadership skills he exercises in Congress. McDermott emphasized that, “If you use the scientific method as part of your evaluation techniques of what is being presented to you, you can always make a much better decision.” Despite the differences in their medical specialties and party affiliation, both physician-congressmen highlighted their ability to listen to and connect with their patient as a necessary skill to being an effective congressman.

In addressing complex political issues, where emotions can often cloud the facts presented, I find solace after speaking to Price and McDermott in knowing that using logic and calculated processes lives strong in some of our representatives. Having said that, there remains a stark difference in political affiliation within those physicians in congress. Seventeen of the physician-congressmen are Republican. The sixteen Republicans that are in the House regularly meet as to “try and speak with one voice,” said Price. The other four are Democrat, and of those four only one—McDermott— is Caucasian. Assuming the scientific method is ingrained in all of the physicians, which may be an unfair assumption since some current physician-congressman have spoken out against global warming being a legitimate concern, choosing a party affiliation and approach to political issues may then remain beyond the scope of evidence based decision making.

The problem in Congress with choosing a proper health care plan seems tied to the differences in how health care is viewed in the different regions of our country. McDermott spoke about a medical education program called WWAMI (Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho), which is a collaborative style of education in the Pacific Northwest focused on primary care and clinical research. McDermott explained that his support of universal health care is motivated by the mentality of the people in the Northwest who according to him, “come from a part of the country where we have among the lowest costs in health care … and the common good has been a major ingredient [in health care].” That region’s health care is much more rural and looks drastically different from what McDermott jokes as the “ivory towered medicine” practiced on the East Coast.

Just as choosing a proper health care policy may be ingrained in our unique experiences and emotions, the journeys of Price and McDermott are testaments to how the plans we have for our own futures are subject to forces beyond our immediate control.

Graduating doctors must feel that a great responsibility has been placed on their shoulders. Price predicts that for medical professionals, our responsibilities may not be limited solely to the clinical setting; many people in the community will perceive us as leaders and expect us to be actively involved both in and outside of the hospital, as is the case for him.

The Georgia State Medical Society called Price to become actively involved in the community while he had been in practice for just a few years. He was asked to “get your white coat and go down to the state capital and talk to your state senator and lobby for the kinds of solutions we think are appropriate to help us continue to take care of patients.” In his first trip to the state capital, Price recalls that he had “great conversations with the representatives, but it was clear they knew very little about how to take care of patients.” This first exposure to health care in politics is consistent with Price’s current ideology of wanting Washington, D.C. to have a lesser role in how physicians practice medicine, considering how removed and disconnected it seems at times.

This experience began the mission for Price and his wife Dr. Elizabeth Price to educate those is power making crucial decisions on how doctors can provide care. From that point forward, his involvement in politics developed gradually until he himself successfully ran for state senator in 1996 and served four terms in the state Senate thereafter. As Price commented, his type-A surgeon personality demanded a full dedication to the service of those he represented.

Similarly, McDermott’s journey started at the level of trying to influence state legislation for the sake of his patients and gradually led to the opportunity to have more influence at the federal level in Washington, D.C.

Now, pitted against each other in the halls of Congress, each of these physicians were (and still are) challenged with the daunting task of establishing a national health care plan. Like a good congressman, Price has taken major strides for the people from his red state who would not like to see the Affordable Care Act take full effect. It is Price’s name on the Republican bill that would replace the Affordable Care Act. The 249-page bill, titled H.R. 2300, would repeal Obamacare and save the country a lot of money,according to Price. McDermott and his Washington State constituents may have thought the fight for universal health care was settled, but that seems up for debate according to Price. It is safe to say that us medical students are entering a world of unknown in the health care field. Luckily, I was reminded by McDermott that much of the future of our lives, not just in our health care system, are also largely unknown and may take unexpected and positive turns as it did for him.

“Life has a funny way of opening doors and closing others,” said McDermott. After having run for state senate and lost, McDermott thought that he would continue the rest of his career as a psychiatrist traveling around the globe. But there are unpredictable motivators, like our family, that may be pushing us through new doors. While in Africa in 1988, McDermott’s brother and others convinced him to come back to politics to realize their dream of a universal health care plan.

I found myself asking McDermott whether he identifies as a politician or a physician. It seemed to me that since his completion of his training, politics and practicing psychiatry have been meshed together. After all, his involvement in politics spans over 40 years! I was thinking too narrowly, though. McDermott does think of himself as a physician but dismisses the idea of identifying as either in saying, “I don’t want to identify simply as a doctor… I want to be thought of as someone who dealt with the general health of the community and the common good.” In saying this, he reminds us that while we may identify as a ‘medical student’ or ‘doctor’, the person we are is defined by our values and objectives and the way we engage the world around us. The ways in which McDermott and Price rose to the occasion as leaders in their community and continue to do so shows us how they have been able to surpasses the constraints of the definition of a doctor.

Price reminded me, “Many docs run for office and don’t succeed.” Reflecting on the journeys of these two physicians, I came to the conclusion that there may not be a single profession or skill that enables us to do something meaningful if we have not first discovered what it is that gives our own lives meaning. As we move through our years of medical education, it is vital for us to evaluate the qualities we are placing so much time on developing and the outcomes we hope to achieve. For Price and McDermott, they are unexpectedly accomplishing their goals in a place with much larger halls than hospitals, with just as significant consequences.

Corey Meador (3 Posts)

Contributing Writer

Drexel University College of Medicine

Corey is a Class of 2017 medical student at the Drexel University College of Medicine.