As you prepare to vote in this year’s midterm elections — or, if like me, you have already done so by early or mail-in voting — are you thinking about how that action may affect your health? If not, take a moment to think about how public policies and services affect your health or the health of people around you. Things like clean water, safe neighborhoods, school lunch programs, vaccine availability and so on. Voting is one way we all can engage in our communities (local, state, national) and influence civic choices that can have a profound effect on health.
This post is part of an occasional series focused on healthcare workers who address the “social determinants of health” by helping patients take actions that address underlying conditions impacting health. SDoH include housing, food, transportation, social support, environmental factors such as water, air quality and safety (crime, infrastructure) and other factors that effect the health of individuals and communities.
A recent article in The Boston Globe features the efforts of Alister Martin, M.D., to encourage patients to register to vote. He is quoted as saying, ““The goal is to have the patient one step closer to understanding this connection, that their civic health and their physical health are inextricably linked.” He is the founder of Vo+ER,“a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization working to integrate civic engagement into healthcare,” which has helped tens of thousands of patients across the U.S. register and prepare to vote.
Dr. Martin, who is now an emergency room physician at Massachusetts General Hospital, recalls an interaction years ago that triggered this idea. A young woman had come to the ER at Boston Children’s Hospital, where he was working at the time, late at night with her baby and toddler because she was homeless and desperate for a warm place to sleep. Having fled an abusive partner in a different state and worn out her welcome with a relative in Massachusetts, she would qualify for public assistance but had no way to prove her Massachusetts residency. One of Dr. Martin’s colleagues offered a creative solution:
“…the hospital’s social worker suggested a novel idea: They would register her to vote — homeless people can provide a Social Security number to register to vote in Massachusetts — then use the document to prove residency and qualify her for family shelter.
That prompted Dr. Martin to begin asking patients if they were registered to vote and, if not, providing them with information. Healthcare workers in hospitals and medical offices that participate in Vo+ER wear a badge that offers a QR code and other means of accessing the Vo+ER website, which describes how to register to vote, request ballots and access more information.
In the Boston Globe article, Dr. Martin says that after his initial experience with the homeless mother he began to see that people who come to the ER for help with problems that represent crises of access and support more than medical emergencies “overlap almost uniformly with who is not registered to vote in this country.” While registering to vote won’t put a roof over your head tonight or food on the table in the morning, it does represent engagement in civic decision-making about factors with real impact on health. It’s another way to engage in improving health
Other posts in this series:
Using legal aid to improve health
Families benefit from Boston Medical Center’s StreetCred
In California, pediatricians support parents’ behavioral health, too