supporting civic health in primary care

The national organization Vot-ER has designated August as Civic Health Month, “a time to showcase the link between voting and health and celebrate efforts that ensure each and every voter has the opportunity to support their community’s health at the ballot box.” Partners, including the Association of American Medical Colleges, encourage clinicians and health care organizations to support an inclusive democracy by providing patients with nonpartisan education and voter registration services.
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recent narrative review in The Milbank Quarterly explored the role of primary care in advancing civic engagement and health equity. Research shows that poorer population health is associated with lower voter turnout, with stronger associations occurring in early adulthood rather than in middle age. On the other hand, voting is associated with positive mental health and health behaviors, and higher levels of individual happiness strongly predict future civic engagement. Similarly, volunteers are less likely to be hospitalized and more likely to receive preventive care, even after controlling for age, gender, race, income, education, and insurance status: “In one study of US adults, volunteers spent 38% fewer nights in a hospital and were more likely to receive services such as flu shots, cholesterol screening, mammograms, and prostate exams as compared with nonvolunteers.”

Primary care physicians have successfully engaged patients with “civic health check-ups” at federally qualified health centers and other outpatient locations. In a voter registration project in the waiting areas of two family medicine residency clinics in the Bronx, volunteers registered 114 of 128 eligible patients during a 12-week period, 65% of whom were younger than 40 years. During the COVID-19 pandemic, a general internal medicine clinic in North Carolina used its patient portal to disseminate a REDCap survey containing embedded links to voter resources, including safer alternatives to in-person voting during the 2020 elections.

Outside of these and other individual case studies, voter enfranchisement remains, to borrow from the title of a 2020 perspective article in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, “an underused treatment strategy.» To make voting a “standard of care,” Vot-ER and its partners are hosting several online events this month for clinicians who are interested in empowering patients to support their community’s health at the ballot box.

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