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The Physician Responsibility to Advocate for their Patients

"Physicians have an opportunity and duty to advocate for the needs of individual patients as well as society." They "should work toward ensuring access to health care for all persons." So says the ACP Ethics Manual (fifth edition, 2005). Professionalism entails advocacy on behalf of individual patients but also, participation by physicians in civic affairs and efforts to improve the health and well-being of the public. Perhaps easier said than done, given the challenges and pressures of everyday medical practice.

The Physician Charter on Professionalism (2002), in its description of the commitment to improve access to care, further tells physicians to "… strive to reduce barriers to equitable health care" through "the promotion of public health and preventive medicine, as well as public advocacy on the part of each physician, without concern for the self-interest of the physician or the profession."

Unfortunately, we know that public engagement sometimes is deferred to other priorities. In a recent study on voting rates as an indicator of civic involvement, our fellow internists and ACP members David Grande, David Asch and Katrina Armstrong found that "Physicians have lower adjusted voting rates than lawyers and the general population, suggesting reduced civic participation," and that this dates back to the late 1970’s (Do doctors vote? JGIM. 2007; 22: 585-9).

So let’s reverse the trend together. We intend to get involved, get educated, share our expertise to educate others and, of course—vote. And we remind ourselves, again from the ACP Ethics Manual, that “physicians should advocate just as vigorously for the needs of their most vulnerable and disadvantaged patients as for the needs of their most articulate patients.” For more ethics and professionalism resources and policy, visit the ACP Ethics Section of this site.

Please join us in reaffirming medicine’s commitment to professionalism, to our patients, and to our communities.

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