The attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 left our nation reeling. Across the country, institutions of higher learning — their students, staff and leadership — responded to the riots with strong statements of dissent. Likewise, the University of Arizona College of Medicine — Tucson medical students expressed their condemnation and disbelief to what transpired at our nation’s sacred temple to American democracy.
“I think more than anything I was just in shock that it was happening. It seemed so surreal, like a scene out of a movie,” said Meghana Partha, a first-year medical student and president of the UACOM-T's Internal Medicine Student Association. “2020 was such an insane year that I didn’t think I could be caught off-guard. Absolute chaos at the Capitol definitely threw me for a loop.”
For many, the siege on the Capitol was the culmination of a politically charged and tumultuous 2020: a year marked by a raging pandemic, a struggle against systemic racism and uncertainty about the future.
Gabrielle Mintz, a second-year medical student actively involved in UACOM-T leadership and advocacy, shared her views on the riots, especially in the backdrop of last year’s Black Lives Matter protests.
“I was surprised to see how ill-equipped the Capitol police were for this event. We all know that if it had been a BLM protest, they would have been armed to the teeth. A terroristic siege, one that truly endangered the lives of our nation's lawmakers, seems a much more appropriate time for militarized police than a peaceful protest against systemic racism and police brutality," Mintz said.
Feelings of concern and dejection quickly turned into a desire to respond to the violent demonstrations at the Capitol. However, many medical students found themselves asking how to respond, and more importantly, whether it was appropriate to respond at all.
Through their four years of training, medical students are taught to separate their political preferences from the medical profession. This is done to respect different political views in the wards, to prevent conflict and compliance issues with patients and to retain objectivity when caring for diverse populations.
Naturally, these expectations — coupled with the rigors of medical education and an absolute commitment to professional development — have limited political activism amongst medical students. Despite notable exceptions, such as the push to end healthcare segregation in the 1960s as well as protests against unequal access to HIV medications in the 1980s, medical students remained politically absent during the 20th century.
The 21st century revitalized the medical student activist. Even with the constraints inherent to medical education, the last two decades have seen a growing movement by medical students to organize against racial discrimination, health inequity, political stagnation and, most recently, perceived mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“One of our biggest responsibilities as medical students and professionals is to advocate for our patients,” Mintz said, as she discussed her views on what she believes is an inadequate response to COVID-19. “This is even more true in these unprecedented times under an administration that frequently professes disinformation and downplays a deadly virus. It is essential that medical students take a stand and denounce these actions.”
Regarding systemic racism, Partha believes that medical students play an essential role in being political advocates for disenfranchised communities.
“Issues of racism are definitely within the scope of the medical profession because directly affect patient care and outcomes,” Partha said. “Political power is key against racism because it gives patients autonomy and improves social determinants of health.”
As for the events of Jan. 6 at the Capitol, Partha and Mintz agree on the appropriate response from medical students: political activism.
For Partha, medical professionals are vital role models in the community and should take a firm stance against domestic terrorism.
“At a certain point,” Partha said, “events like the attack on the Capitol are just unnecessary acts of violence that medical students should not condone by staying silent.”
Partha proceeded by saying this form for leadership will be vital in easing political tension and returning trust to the medical profession.
Mintz expanded on these ideas. “Medical professionals must play a role in politics, especially when we reside in a country that has made basic science and healthcare a political issue.” She emphasized that issues within the medical profession cannot be simply entrusted to “legislators and lawyers.”
Whether they respond to a violent riot, a public health crisis or a deep systemic issue, it is becoming increasingly clear that medical students have entered the political sphere and have the capacity, when organized, to exert significant political power.
Medical student political activism has taken many forms. Members of the American Medical Student Association have organized the Med Out The Vote campaign, an initiative that aims to increase medical student voter registration and turnout. Similar efforts, such as the VotER initiative, seek to expand access to voting sites, advocate for voting rights and facilitate voter registration in disenfranchised communities.
At UACOM-T, students like Mintz have devoted their medical training to patient advocacy and political concerns that impact access to healthcare. Mintz is an active member of Medical Students for Choice, a non-profit that aims to educate medical students on reproductive health laws and family planning legislation. Part of these efforts includes political activism against policies that limit abortion rights and seek to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Partha and Mintz echo the sentiments of thousands of medical students around the country. They recognize that there are systemic issues that can be addressed through policy and activism. For many, the attack on the Capitol revealed the need for medical students to enter the fray and exercise their political power.
Today’s medical student activists will be tomorrow’s physician leaders. They are starting their careers during a challenging time marked by political tension and skepticism towards the medical profession. These issues will ultimately shape the way they engage politically. For them, the stakes could not be higher.
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