WASHINGTON – Stethoscope in one hand and a legislative pen in the other, these doctors are bringing their life-saving skills to Congress.
“My job is to take care of the patient that’s in front of me, and as a member of Congress, my job is to take care of the constituents that I represent,” said Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.), an internal medicine doctor who served as Sacramento County’s Chief Medical Officer before running for office.
Bera is one of 19 physician members in the current Congress. These doctors-turned-legislators said their experiences in the medical industry inspire their legislative efforts.
“In the end, we’re a service industry. It’s about the people. Nobody cares about anything other than how much you care about them,” said emergency medicine physician Rep. Rich McCormick (R-Ga.).
“That’s the same as the attitude I have as an ER doc.” McCormick, who attended medical school after serving as a pilot in the Marine Corps, eventually became head of the Emergency Medicine Department for the Navy in Kandahar, Afghanistan after his residency.
With issues like Covid-19, abortion care and transgender rights coming to the fore, doctors have become increasingly involved in the political sphere.
“Health care remains a hot topic. Medications are too expensive. The Supreme Court has overturned a woman’s right to make our own health care decisions,” said Rep. Kim Schrier (D-Wash.), the first pediatrician and one of just three female physicians in Congress. Schrier said systemic issues affecting children like hunger and access to public education motivated her transition to politics.
Out of all doctors in Congress, 15 members are in the House and only four are Democrats. Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), who served as co-chair of the GOP Doctors Caucus from 2018-2022, said that many Republican physicians were inspired to run after the Affordable Care Act was passed, fearful of governmental influence on clinicians’ practices.
“When I was elected in 2010, I was one of six physicians elected that year, all Republicans. It was a kind of a pushback against Obamacare,” Harris said. Harris is an anesthesiologist by trade, having served in the Naval Reserve.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the number of Americans who say they have not too much or no confidence in scientists to act in the best interests of the public has grown from 12 percent to 27 percent, according to Pew Research. Confidence in medical scientists has also decreased. Members noted how the presence of medical perspectives in Congress is more important than ever.
“It’s been a critical missing voice,” Schrier said.
Some note that the presence of doctors in Congress has been a mainstay since the nation’s founding.
“I often go back to the framers of the Constitution, and there were farmers and bankers and businessmen. And there were also doctors. Benjamin Rush, who was there from the very beginning the father of American psychiatry,” said Rep. John Joyce (R-Pa.), a board-certified internal medicine physician and dermatologist who said the impact of physician shortages on rural communities like his own influenced his run.
While medicine is a taxing profession, legislators said it remains their passion, and there are parts of the job they miss.
“The thing I miss most is actually teaching the medical students,” Bera, who taught as a professor of medicine at the University of California, Davis, said.
“It’s not easy. You see a lot of physician burnout, but I think it’s incredibly important.”
Schrier says that seeing her former patients in the supermarket reminds her how she misses the “relationships that you build with families.”
Some even see a future where they return to seeing patients after their time on the Hill.
“I could easily see going back to it,” Harris said. “I’ve, you know, practiced for over 30 years. I think I can still share that with patients.”