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The Public Role of Physicians
Written by Jeanne Bohm, Ph.D.   
Two-thirds of physicians surveyed are active in their local community, are politically involved or play a role in advocacy, according to a study in the November 22/29 issue of JAMA.

Debate has raged about the public role of physicians, and specifically the degree to which they address health-related matters outside the clinic. Various physician leaders and physician groups support physicians taking on public roles. But little information is known about practicing physicians’ attitudes about participation in community, political, or advocacy activities.

Russell L. Gruen, M.B.B.S., Ph.D., of the University of Melbourne, Royal Melbourne Hospital, and colleagues from Harvard Medical School studied the importance of public roles to physicians as well as their participation in related activities. Their sociodemographic and practice factors were also analyzed. In this study, public roles were defined as community participation, political involvement, and collective advocacy.

The researchers used data collected by the Institute on Medicine as a Profession’s (IMAP) Survey on Medical Professionalism. The IMAP survey (November 2003 - June 2004) collected information from 1,662 U.S. physicians to identify their attitudes and participation in public roles within the previous 3 years. The physicians represented 3 primary care specialties (general internal medicine, family practice, and pediatrics) and 3 nonprimary care specialties (general surgery, anesthesiology, and cardiology)

The researchers found that more than 90 percent of the physicians believed that public roles are important. More than half thought that community participation and collective advocacy are very important, and more than one-third regarded individual political involvement is very important. Two-thirds had  participated in at least 1 public role in the previous 3 years.

Nutrition, immunization, substance abuse, and road safety issues were rated as very important by more physicians than access-to-care issues, unemployment, or illiteracy. Factors independently related to a high overall rating of the importance of a public role by physicians included age, female sex, underrepresented race/ethnicity, and graduation from a non-U.S. or non-Canadian medical school.

Researchers concluded that physicians are interested in participating in solving public health concerns. They indicated this study provides evidence to organizations, policy makers, and educators of the interest in a public role. 

The authors also noted the perceived importance physicians assign to involvement in an issue appears to be closely related to whether the issue affects individual patients’ health. The authors believe  that clarification of the roles may be important in increasing physician participation.

In addition, the study showed that personal, professional, and practice characteristics appear to influence physicians’ interest and participation in a public role. Confirmation and understanding of these potential influences could provide guidance to leaders and policy makers who want to increase physician participation in public roles.  

Sources:

JAMA media release
Public Roles of US Physicians: Community Participation, Political Involvement, and Collective Advocacy. JAMA 2006;296:2467-2475.

 

About the Author

Jeanne Bohm, Ph.D. is a cancer biologist by training, a medical writer and an experienced science educator.

The author has no financial relationship to any of the companies listed in the article. 

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