The Politicization of the White Coat

I used to put on my white coat every day knowing it was an emblem of both professionalism and caregiving. It was a piece of uniform I felt proud to wear because it symbolized both my years of training and my commitment to my patients.

But this year my white coat has transformed. Much like myself and my colleagues working on the frontlines of this pandemic, the coat has taken on new meaning and identity. It is no longer just a symbol of my profession but now somehow both a hero’s cape and a charlatan’s costume. It is both a sign of comfort for some patients and a sign of elitist contempt for the President for others.

It’s a new and often uncomfortable space to exist in, one where our words and opinions as physicians are so highly politicized, where our actions are either celebrated or dismissed, depending on the political philosophy you ascribe to. 

We can no longer just discuss the facts because this administration has called into question the truth of data. We can no longer discuss the science behind Covid treatments because this administration has called into question the truth behind the science. We can no longer simply fight the battle against Covid-19, because we are also simultaneously called to fight the battle against misinformation.

Modern history has taught us that the role of the physician in society is complex and often mediated by social and political forces. Throughout the twenty-first century, doctors have participated in politics. We were never a profession of neutral bystanders, sometimes legitimizing corrupt and racist regimes but other times working to dismantle them. 

However, this may be the first time in history that physicians are placed square in the middle of a partisan nightmare, and consequently members of our profession and our professional organizations have mobilized and united against the assault from the right. 

The National Rifle Association recently made a statement, telling doctors advocating for gun control to “stay in their lane”. They argued that policy work and advocacy didn’t belong to our profession. This created a subsequent online viral movement of trauma and emergency room physicians sharing their stories of treating gun violence victims and survivors.

As this administration mocked the data and science behind climate change, physicians mobilized to declare climate change not just an environmental crisis but a public health crisis as well. 

And as the GOP undermined the data behind coronavirus diagnosis rates, testing and hospitalizations, doctors again resisted, participating in campaigns to mitigate disinformation. When Trump claimed that physicians were fabricating covid death rates for profit, both of the largest physicians organizations in the US, the American Medical Association and the American College of Physicians, issued statements calling his accusations blatantly false and his language offensive. 

For the first time in its 200-year history, the New England Journal of Medicine, one of the most prestigious medical journals in the entire world, officially took a partisan stance, stating that this administration’s covid response was not just inadequate but had resulted in the reckless squandering of lives and money.

While I consider myself an activist at heart, I never wanted the white coat to be so heavily politicized. I never wanted my years of training and my dedication to my patients to come into question, to have to argue that my motivations are pure and not financially motivated. But this is the burden that has been thrust on our generation of physicians.

And this burden has added to our collective sense of burnout. We are exhausted by this pandemic, exhausted by the trauma of being on the frontlines, isolated from our families and loved ones. We are morally fatigued,  watching families and communities suffer from the consequences of this pandemic, knowing that the fight is far from over. 

So as we wage battles on multiple fronts, in an unprecedented time and era, the only act of resistance that remains, the response to the politicization of our profession, is to vote.


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