Talking politics in the office? 3 things to keep in mind

October 19, 2020
Even if you’re choosing to disengage, today’s politics have a way of finding you. What are the ground rules for approaching political debates in the practice?
Talking politics

Excerpted from page 14 of the Sept/Oct 2020 edition of AOA Focus.

Whether you follow politics a little or a lot, Americans are at least subconsciously familiar with the concept of horse race-coverage in general elections. It’s that innate desire to know who’s ahead, who’s behind and who’s gaining ground in the polls as candidates enter the ­final stretch of the 2020 presidential election. Even if you’re choosing to disengage, today’s politics have a way of finding you—or ruffling feathers.

What are the best ground rules for approaching political debates in the practice? AOA Focus spoke with several AOA volunteers to ­find out.

  1. Watch your language.

    Should patients wade into turbulent political waters, it’s best for doctors to keep their heads above the surface and not let the conversation drag them under—especially on issues that do not directly affect patient care, says Doug Totten, O.D. Citing AOA’s Standards of Professional Conduct, Dr. Totten emphasizes how doctors of optometry should conduct themselves with “good character in all of their actions to build trust and respect with patients, the public and colleagues.”

    That means acting with honesty, integrity, fairness, kindness and compassion.

    “A doctor of optometry should be sensitive to the imbalance of power in the patient-doctor relationship when considering starting a conversation about a personal political view to a patient or caregiver,” he says. “Doctors should withhold from initiating political conversations while in a clinical encounter to avoid exploiting a patient’s vulnerability and to respect a patient’s desire for privacy.”

    Dr. Totten adds: “When a patient or family is in an emotionally fragile state due to signi­ficant ocular or medical circumstances, a doctor of optometry should especially refrain from conversations about political topics or subjects.”
  2. Read between the lines.

    Given events of the spring and summer, such as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, protests and other politically charged situations, Hilary Hawthorne, O.D., says she’s received a lot of questions from patients about her thoughts.

    “Patients seem to be seeking advice or comfort for their concerns and want to gather reading and media materials that help put them at ease,” Dr. Hawthorne notes. “One morning, I found it unusual that a developmentally disabled patient mentioned she had been watching the news and how she’s been staying indoors and trying not to get into any trouble.”

    Dr. Hawthorne wonders whether state shelter-in-place orders may have even triggered some forms of early developmental trauma that surface with emotional intensity. She can’t remember having so many young adults talk about recent political issues or discussing books about tragic, historical events.

    “I don’t give advice to my patients about stress or how to cope; I can only emphasize and share general messaging about resources that answer who and where to seek help,” Dr. Hawthorne adds.
  3. Prepare for the inevitable.

    Politically charged comments, questions or statements are going to happen, especially in a divisive general election year, so it’s important to plan your response. Although his practice’s policy manual states that conversations with patients should only relate to eye care and refrain from other matters, Joe Ellis, O.D., says he fields such questions with a quick, “These are tough choices to make.”

    However, Dr. Ellis notes, 2020 brings an added dimension to this conversation—the COVID-19 pandemic.

    “As a valued leader in your community and as an essential health care provider, if your conversations with patients drift into a ‘political tone,’ you are obligated as a health care professional to educate the patient on the importance of public health protections and prevention of COVID-19 virus transmission,”

    Dr. Ellis says. In his view, a public health response to the pandemic is more politically tinged than ever.

“A once-in-a-lifetime pandemic is not a political matter; it is a matter of public health.”The AOA Ethics Forum features case studies on ethical challenges and offers suggestions for handling those situations. See how to access Ethics Forum case studies on EyeLearn Professional Development Hub. Or, email ethicsquestions@aoa.org your own ethical question.

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