During the pandemic, physicians got increasingly frustrated with misinformation and lack of government action; then they got involved with politics.
Doctors took to social media, challenging the pandemic deniers and anti-vaxxers — some of whom were elected officials. Hospitals held press conferences to inform the public about data. The nonprofit Oklahoma Alliance for Healthy Families formed in 2019 by physicians and health care workers with the purpose of education and vaccine advocacy, prompted by the COVID-19 information failures.
Recently, the Oklahoma State Medical Association announced that it was launching a three-year initiative to get physicians and “pro-science advocates” to run for the Legislature. Until now, physicians have largely stayed away from elected state office.
Among challenges in recruiting physicians into state office are a drop in pay or, for those remaining in practice, conflicts with scheduling. And they would be stepping into political conflicts.
Dr. Ervin Yen was the first Asian American to serve in the Oklahoma Legislature when elected in 2014 and was the first physician in the state Senate in 40 years. He advocated for childhood immunizations, and anti-vaxx groups targeted him during his reelection bid. He lost in the primary in 2018.
On the House side, Dr. Doug Cox of Grove served from 2004 to 2016 and Dr. Dale Derby of Owasso served from 2017 to 2019. The late Dr. Tom Coburn is the only physician to have served Oklahoma as a U.S. senator and congressman.
Medical doctors historically have stepped up when politics meets public health on such things as fluoridating the water supply, tobacco-use warnings, vaccination drives and issues around healthy living, health care costs, end-of-life and reproductive rights.
Physician activism started before Oklahoma statehood.
Dr. Eliphalet Nott Wright, a Choctaw Nation citizen, returned home to Boggy Depot in Atoka County after graduating from Albany Medical College in 1884 and jumped into Choctaw Nation government affairs.
Few trained physicians were available in the territory, which attracted untrained practitioners. Dr. Wright wrote legislation passed by the Choctaw Nation establishing a board of examiners.
“As a result of the new medical law, these quack practitioners left the nation,” wrote his daughter, noted Oklahoma historian Muriel H. Wright, in a June 1932 Chronicles of Oklahoma edition.
“Within a few years, physicians came into the Choctaw country who not only complied with the requirements of the new law but also took an active part … of strengthening the profession through the Territory.”
As president of the Indian Territory Medical Association, Dr. Wright pushed to merge with the Oklahoma Territory Medical Association in anticipation of statehood. In a 1904 speech, he mentioned Declaration of Independence signer Dr. Benjamin Rush as a model for activism.
The groups united in 1906 to become the Oklahoma State Medical Association.
“As laws of both territories are inadequate, it will be well to take time by the forelock and draw up such laws as will be required for the new state, and urge the election of such legislators as will favor such laws, regardless of political party,” Dr. Wright said at the time.
After Oklahoma was admitted as a state in 1907, friction between osteopathic and allopathic doctors cropped up with both under a single medical board. The osteopathic physicians began questioning the pass rate of of osteopathic students.
“The only solution for this situation seemed to be to begin another campaign for the new law giving us an independent board of examiners. It was a hard fight, but we finally succeeded in getting our present law. We were the first state to pass what the American Osteopathic Association had put out as the ‘model bill,'” according to a history written by Dr. J.A. Ross.
Despite that early activism, the first physician wasn’t elected to the Oklahoma Legislature until 1933 with the election of Dr. Louis Ritzhaupt of Guthrie to the Senate. He served until 1963, with the exception of 1953-57.
An exact number of Oklahoma physicians-turned-politicians isn’t known, but it’s only about a handful.
The Legislature takes up issues annually directly affecting medical practices, from Medicaid funding to lawsuit liability to specific courses of treatment.
With so much micromanaging of the exam room, the Legislature could use the voices — and votes — of more physicians.