With less than 2 weeks until election day, clinicians around the United States have been helping patients who land in their hospitals find voter information or register on the spot — an extension, they say, of treating the whole person.
The VoteER initiative was started a year ago by emergency medicine physician Alister Martin, MD, at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, but it has taken off in the COVID-19 era because of the challenges posed by voting at a physical location.
Now physicians, nurses, and other healthcare professionals in a wide range of disciplines at 300 hospitals and students at 80 medical schools are spreading the word. So far, Martin told Medscape Medical News, the program has signed up more than 40,000 people who have either registered to vote or have requested vote-by-mail ballots.
Participating clinicians wear buttons, lanyards, or badge stickers with information patients can text to learn details on how to vote in their area. Healthcare professionals can also upload a QR code as a background on their phones’ home screens or print them out in poster form. Patients can scan the code and within minutes register to vote or request a mail-in ballot.
The tools are available free by ordering a physical kit or by downloading the toolbox. Martin said that so far, 25,000 physical kits, funded by foundations, have been sent out and “hundreds of thousands” of the digital version have been downloaded.
Because the message promotes voting and not a particular candidate, no ethical lines are being crossed, said Aliza Narva, MSN, RN, JD, director of ethics for the University of Pennsylvania Hospital in the Penn Medicine health system. Clinicians answer questions about how to vote if patients ask.
“If anything, there’s an obligation to help people participate,” she told Medscape Medical News. “As a nurse, I have an ethical obligation to care for my whole patient. Nursing is a civic profession, which means we have an obligation outside of a 12-hour shift to engage in civic duty and help our patients navigate their lives. We’re certainly not telling them who to vote for.”
Martin said health systems are competing to sign up the most patients and staff. Penn Medicine is leading by a wide margin, having signed up 3500 voters since August 1, largely because the CEO, Kevin Mahoney, made the project a system-wide priority.
“Healthcare Is Political”
In 2016, Martin brought voting kiosks, with the blessing of hospital leaders, to Mass General’s Emergency Department (ED) with the hope of giving a voice to people who would be most affected by policies.
Martin said he learned from experience — growing up with a single mom in a low-income home in New Jersey — that struggling families like his were using EDs for primary care.
In his years studying for a master’s degree in public policy, he realized that young people, those with low income, and people of color made up a large percentage of the population