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Doctors: Don’t Mix Medicine & Politics

Health care reform has become a deeply political subject.  And like other subjects that have become political, wading into them can be perilous.

Take two recent examples from the world of business to see what can happen.

In August, John Mackey, the CEO of the Whole Foods supermarket wrote an editorial in the Wall Street Journal on against the proposed health care reforms.  From a policy perspective his views were within the mainstream.  But from a political perspective he was sharply to the right of his customer base.  The result?  Whole Foods was hit with organized protests and boycotts.  Mackey had greatly tarnished his personal “brand,” if not that if his company.

Another CEO did something similar just a few days ago.

James Guest, of Consumers Union (which publishes Consumer Reports) decided to run its first TV commercials in 72 years.  Why?  Guest wanted to take a public a stance in favor of the proposed health care reforms.  Not surprisingly, Mr. Guest is starting to see the same kind of thing happen to him as happened to Mackey, just from a different side of the political spectrum.  Mr. Guest’s mistake?  His organization’s “brand” is that it is a independent, trusted resource.  By taking sides on a fundamentally political issue, he has put that reputation at great risk.  He’s tarnished the company’s brand, if not his own.

What does this have to do with doctors?

Doctors have a very special expertise and insight into medicine and medical care.  They also enjoy a reputation as the most trusted profession in America.  But they put that reputation at risk when they take fundamentally political positions – no matter how deeply felt – on an issue like health care reform.

Take, for example, the Rose Garden event the other day at the White House.  The President held it to show that doctors support the reforms he does, and asked the dozens of doctors there to wear white lab coats to underscore the point in pictures.  A few weeks before, doctors protested in Washington against these plans, also wearing their white coats.  Why are they all wearing their white coats?  Because they are trying to leverage their trusted “brand” to advocate for their political position.

Now, consider that much of what is in these health care reform proposals are changes to the health insurance market, not health “care.”  The proposals are about long-term problems with the federal deficit, the uninsured, and the proper role of federal and state governments in addressing them.  Doctors don’t have special expertise in these areas.  They are just ordinary Americans with political opinions.

And this is the danger.  As one smart blogger put it, “if you have a big megaphone be sure you use it to enhance, not detract from, your brand.”  If your brand is trust and independence, it detracts from it to take sides in a political debate.  Just ask John Mackey and James Guest.

What would make more sense would be if doctors could come together to support a refocusing of our health reform debate on what’s really important in health care: giving doctors the time and space they need to think about their patients, consult with colleagues, and give good advice.  It’s something they uniquely understand, and which too few people realize is at the core of our problems in health care.

So, be careful, doctors.  If you let the stain of politics set on your white coat, it will more difficult than you think to get it out.

*This blog post was originally published at See First Blog*

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