By Matthew Brown, MD
My name is Matthew Brown, and I am a family doctor who has worked with the underserved in the inner city of Rochester for the past 12 years. In my position, I have seen what happens when people do not have access to primary and preventive care. I have seen people admitted for diabetic complications because they couldn’t afford their insulin. I have seen people diagnosed with end-stage cancer because they couldn’t afford screenings to catch it when it could have been treated. I have seen strokes, and heart attacks, and kidney failure, and a hundred other things because people had to choose between medicine and food. Between doctor’s visits and having a roof over their heads. Between what they needed in the long-term and what they needed right that moment.
Medical care shouldn’t be a political issue. I didn’t work so diligently in medical school and residency because I hoped one day I would get to lobby my congressman, or attend rallies, or research Supreme Court decisions. The reason I became a doctor was, quite simply, to help people who needed help. And I hope most of the people I’ve had the honor and privilege of serving would see that even if I failed, I was trying with all of my heart to do that.
But the truth is, if I limit myself to studying disease, and treatment, and screenings, I’m not really doing all I can. Because it’s not about that any longer. Not just that. Because, for all of the talk some years ago about “death panels,” we are now seeing what the real death panel has been all along: poverty, lack of power, lack of access to care. Because if you’re rich, you can afford health care. And if you’re poor, you cannot. Full stop.
I ask my patients about non-medical things all the time. I ask them about work and about seat-belts and bike helmets. I ask them about guns and gun safety. I ask them about their families and about their favorite sports teams. I ask them how their weekends were. But now I’m asking them one more question: Are you registered to vote?
If the answer is yes, then I thank them and urge them to make sure they go to the polls and vote in every election. If the answer is no, then I hand them a voter registration form complete with postage and I help them fill it out if necessary. If they have a felony on their record, I review the New York state rules establishing that they are able to vote once they are off parole. If they have immigration issues, I get a social worker involved. I do not tell them how to vote or ask them how they vote; if they ask me my own political leanings, I simply say, “If you know me, then you know what I support.”
And this is where “The Ask” comes in, what I am asking of my colleagues: If you are a primary care provider who works with the underserved, start asking people if they are registered to vote then help them to do it. It doesn’t take long, and it is so important.
And because everything needs a stupid hashtag these days, here’s this one: #VotingIsAVitalSign.
Thank you for everything you do, and thank you in advance for everything you will be called to do in the coming weeks and months and years.
Matthew Brown, MD, is a family physician and an AAFP member in Rochester, New York.