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Health Care Social Workers Can Help Patients by Registering Them to Vote
By Eleanor Zambrano and Kristina Whiton-O’Brien

The COVID-19 pandemic bared the ugly truth about the inequities in our country, especially as it relates to the health of individuals and certain communities in our country. Long before health authorities cast COVID-19 as a pandemic of the unvaccinated, the crisis illuminated the fragility of life for those families without stable housing, adequate food, or ready access to health care.

As the pandemic continues to evolve, these vulnerable communities remain at disproportionate risk, just as they do for diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, and a host of other preventable ailments. While health care professionals struggle to keep up with the continued surge of COVID cases and provide care to those who delayed treatment during the height of the pandemic, fatigue has set in. Burnout and trauma for our essential workers is a grave reality and taxing the health care workforce.

Right now, we have an opportunity, and a critical window of time, to rethink how we tackle social factors that influence health—from employment to housing—before the next global emergency strikes. Doctors, nurses, social workers, and other care providers are perfectly positioned to help patients take a key step in uplifting their own health through voter registration.

What Is Civic Health Engagement?
Civic health engagement means we all participate in the decision-making process that shapes the health and social policy systems that impact us all. If a community has strong civic health, it can be more resilient in times of crisis.

Research has shown that civic health engagement builds physically healthier communities with higher life expectancies, increased employment rates, improved schools, and revitalized neighborhoods. And it’s correlated with voter participation. In the 2018 New York City mayoral election, East Harlem had a 35% lower voter turnout rate compared with citywide turnout. The life expectancy in East Harlem is decades lower than surrounding voting precincts.

Doctors, nurses, and social workers often see patients who are not only experiencing physical symptoms, but who are also hungry, inadequately housed, or lacking medical coverage or resources to treat their chronic or acute illnesses. Health care workers and health care social workers can directly impact civic health engagement by taking an active role in registering those patients to vote. Increasing voter registration rates increases community connections, involvement in problem-solving, and participation in decision-making. It gives patients a voice in shaping the policies that drive inequities and health disparities.

Voting and civic health engagement are nonpartisan tools providers can use to uplift communities, improve the wellness of all people, and promote community involvement in future decision-making after the devastation of a global pandemic.

Voting is a remedy. The more voices at the ballot box, the healthier our democracy can be. Massachusetts has more than 27,000 physicians, more than 150,000 licensed nurses, and almost 30,000 social workers. Just think of the impact all of these professionals could make on voter registration in Massachusetts alone.

In the 2020 Presidential Election, Vot-ER, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization focused on partnering with health care providers to get their patients registered to vote, engaged 48,000 patients nationwide in voter registration. Through a collaboration between Vot-ER and the Center for Innovation in Social Work and Health at Boston University, we focused on raising awareness about National Civic Health Month this year in August. We are calling on all health care professionals nationwide to take an active role in registering your patients to vote. Health care professionals should bring civic health awareness and engagement resources to their patients. In fact, it is completely permissible and encouraged for nonprofit institutions to conduct voter registration activities. Whether it is at a community health center, hospital unit, health care facility, or consultation room, we urge you to educate and help your patients register to vote.

If campaigns reach out only to those communities that actively vote to understand and respond to their specific needs and issues, then communities with the most complex health issues may not have their voices heard if they continue to vote in lower numbers. Increasing voter registration rates among communities most devastated by COVID-19 in future elections will allow for increased access and a healthy democracy for all. It will support the work of our health care professionals on the frontlines and begin to heal our neighborhoods, our cities, our states, and our nation.

— Eleanor Zambrano is a social worker and the executive director of the Center for Innovation in Social Work and Health at Boston University School of Social Work.

— Kristina Whiton-O’Brien is a social worker and the director of partnerships for Vot-ER.