Pediatricians have a powerful opportunity to promote civic engagement as part of a healthy, holistic transition from adolescence to adulthood. Many pediatricians and adolescent specialists now care for patients ages 18 to 24 — the very age group in the U.S. with the lowest voter turnout. With clear evidence that youth voting is associated with better life outcomes, improved community health, and the potential to reduce health disparities, the biggest remaining question is, why haven't we taken action sooner?
Let's unpack the evidence on why adolescent and young adult voting matters and what you can do about it.
1. Civic Engagement is a Developmentally-Appropriate Milestone Toward "Adulting"
All adolescents undergo fundamental biological, cognitive, and social changes that allow them to begin thinking hypothetically and abstractly about themselves and the world around them. Also during this period, optimism rules over pessimism. As seen through demonstrations by students from Parkland, Florida to Oakland, California, civic engagement is an opportune venue to flex newfound identities and ideals at this ripe age of possibilities.
Combining hope with the power to address complex issues of today can have lasting effects on young people and society as a whole.
For doctors drawn to Pediatrics by the power of young people's potential, amplifying voices of the newest members of the electorate brings a new meaning to #VoteKids.
2. Teen and Young Adult Voting Behavior is Associated with Better Life Outcomes
It's a well-established fact that healthier, wealthier, and more educated people are more likely to vote. But an emerging body of evidence suggests an interesting corollary: youth voting behavior predicts adult economic and health outcomes even after statistical measures are undertaken to minimize selection bias.
Among nationally-representative samples, voting predicted increased personal and household incomes and higher levels of education — all-powerful social determinants of health in our society. Teens who voted were more likely to subsequently engage in healthy behaviors like exercising and abstaining from heavy drinking and smoking. They also experienced less depressive symptoms. Another study showed that among a low-income, urban sample, civic engagement was linked to decreased criminal activity and increased optimism and life satisfaction.
While further research is needed to unpack the relationship between voting behavior and subsequent outcomes, these studies convey that voting early in the lifespan may lead to better health and overall better lives down the road.
Furthermore, voting is about more than self-interest: Voting is about exercising our political power to better our society. And, collective power yields population-level impacts. This makes sense. We know that social cohesion manifested in policy can have vast effects on health. For example, civil rights leader Dr. Roy Wilson argues that geographical data in the U.S. shows that in areas with high rates of voter participation, there are decreases in gun violence and substance abuse. Similarly, a multinational study revealed that people in countries with higher social inclusion, social capital, and diversity were more likely to self-report good health.
3. Widespread Civic Engagement Holds Potential to Diminish Health Inequities
As pediatric residents at a safety net hospital, we witness every day the uphill battle underserved patients and families fight due to historical and current lack of political representation: diabetes and obesity in the setting of food deserts. Apathy and self-medication in the setting of police, neighborhood, and structural violence. Abdominal pain in the setting of fear that undocumented loved ones may imminently be deported.
Opening up the dialogue about voting gives pediatricians another vantage point to understand patients' lives while affirming that each adolescent's perspective matters in our democracy. And there is a ripple effect: young voters are more likely to vote in subsequent elections and often energize family members to vote as well.
Engaging underserved youth in the political process brings voices in from the margins and holds promise to improve the economic, educational, and social systems that perpetuate health inequities.
A Practical Primer
But, you may wonder, how might busy physicians — already squeezed for time between 15-minute visits and never-ending EMR inboxes — add yet another thing to their to-do list? The possibilities are limitless, but there are few simple and effective ways to leverage daily interactions with prospective teen voters:
1. Ask adolescent patients about voting during teen clinic visits.
Are they planning to vote?
If yes, are they registered, and will they go to the polls or vote absentee? How do they plan to learn about candidates and issues?
If no, why not?
While not all patients may be eligible to vote due to age or legal status, each encounter is an opportunity to reinforce their belonging in American democracy and potential ways they can contribute, both now and in the future, to their communities.
2. Make it easy to register.
Have voter registration forms or a digital portal that connects to www.vote.gov available in your office. Collaborate with local organizations to hold voter registration drives at your clinic or hospital.
3. Help educate new voters.
Provide resources on the political process, voter registration, and upcoming elections via after-visit summaries, brochures, or even peer health educators. Post voter registration deadlines and Election Day dates in your waiting room.
Pediatricians' efforts are only part of the puzzle. Youth need relevant, comprehensive history and civics lessons in schools. Adolescents have a responsibility to follow through by staying informed and dropping their ballots in the box. The influence of parents and peers cannot be understated. Voter suppression tactics must be addressed. We also have much to learn from community organizers, nonprofits, teachers, and researchers who have shaped engaged citizens for decades.
But pediatricians need to start somewhere. America, the health of our youth, and our collective future depend on it.
Drs. Stephanie Fong Gomez and Annie Kaplan are pediatric residents at UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital Oakland, where they are launching a multifaceted effort to increase the political power of local youth. Stay up to date with their advocacy efforts via Twitter at @drfonggomez and @anniekapkap. If you are also passionate about the youth vote, connect with Children's Hospital Oakland by emailing CHOVotes@gmail.com.
Dr. Fong Gomez is an alumni of the Johns Hopkins University and the UC Berkeley-UCSF Joint Medical Program dedicated to working at the intersection of pediatrics, social and structural determinants of health, and community engagement to diminish health inequities.
Dr. Kaplan is an alumni of Reed College and NYU School of Medicine with a background in legislative advocacy and aspirations to empower physicians to shape the policies that improve patient lives.
A version of this article was originally published on Medium and re-published with permission by the authors.