The New Face of American Medicine: Liberal Women

A recent study shows political alliances are shifting among U.S. physicians, and female doctors are leading the way.


The political agency of doctors is shifting in an unprecedented way: Doctors are becoming increasingly more liberal, according to a new study by researchers out of Stanford, NYU, and Columbia. The leading factor behind the shifting political alliances of American doctors? A rising number of women in the medical field.

“It is the increased number of women that has contributed to the growth of the democratic wing,” explained David J. Rothman, Ph.D., an author of the study and a professor of social medicine at Columbia University. “The gender composition of the profession is changing. Women now make up about 50 percent of all entering med-school classes.”

Rothman, along with Adam Bonica, Ph.D., a political science professor at Stanford, and Howard Rosenthal, Ph.D., a political science professor at NYU, examined Federal Election Commission filings between 1991 and 2012. The results, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, show that physician campaign contribution increased over that period to $189 million from just $20 million.

What’s more, the overall spread of cash across the political spectrum has evened out to the left—when, historically, doctors have been of Republican preference. The numbers aligned with the results of a 2013 survey by Physicians Program, that physician political alignment was split almost evenly: 33% Republican, 31% Democrat, 24% Independent and 12% unregistered. And the specialty of medicine practiced played a role in the way doctors swung. Those in lower-paying fields of medicine were more likely to lean Democratic, as higher-paid positions were likely to go to bat for the GOP.

“One reason we explored the data more was how it was divided or fractured the data was based on specialty,” Bonica told The Daily Beast. “We didn’t anticipate that fully prior to the study.” He explained that, just like any profession with large sums of money involved, those with more money were more likely to lean to the right.

And though a greater number of women seem to be the most evident factor for that shift leftward—women historically vote more Democratic anyway—the decrease in the number of sole proprietorships, down to about 30 percent, also plays a factor in the way doctors vote. Because there is such a large spike in the number of doctors who are salaried, there’s less reason for doctors to align themselves with small-business-oriented politics.

So a profession that was once thought of as a small-businessman’s is now the career woman’s.

“Medicine is now in a state of extraordinary change,” Rothman said. “I don’t mean that lightly. There are revolutions going on in health care, such as the Affordable Care Act. We’ve got millions of people who were never insured now insured. We’ve got a whole series of actions, recommendations, programs, coming out of that. It’s changing American medicine.”

Of course, the political allegiances of American physicians have shifted quite a bit as health-care issues become more central to federal-level politics. In 1965, when social security provisions were signed by Lyndon B. Johnson, the American Medical Association was the legislation’s biggest opponent. The AMA did everything in its power to defeat Medicare, saying it would be a strain on resources, it would lower doctors’ salaries, and it would cause unfair assignment of individuals to doctors. These are all similar arguments to those leveled against the Affordable Care Act.

Four years ago, Dr. Kent Sepkowitz lamented on The Daily Beast about how poorly the doctors who serve office in Washington made the profession look. (He went as far as to say “crazy.”) But there are more physicians in Congress right now than at any other point in American history: 20—and 16 of them are Republican.

Some have commented that this study is largely predictable, but the research team defends its work for the sheer paucity of information on this topic, during this time frame. “We have every reason to expect these demographic changes to continue, if not accelerate,” Bonica said. “The profession is going through a profound generational turnover and how these changes will actually affect legislation will be worthy of scrutiny.”

The AMA doesn’t track party affiliation, though you can search for the name of anyone you’ve suspected of donating to a campaign on the Federal Election Commission website. (It does disclose its political contributions, here.)

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It also should be noted that associating political contributions from individuals is not necessarily representative of the field as a whole—this is just one data set. Political contributions from individual physicians are not explicitly correlated to rank and file physicians, especially considering many of the contributions tracked here are on the federal level. Not many doctors are likely to reach for the pocketbook on that scale without quite a bit of deliberation. Further, only political contributions over $200 must be disclosed the FEC.