2018 Midterms: The Year of the Female Physician

By | November 5, 2018


While women make up more than half of the U.S. population, an imbalance remains between who we are as a nation and who represents us in Congress. The gender disparity is no different for physicians: more than one third of doctors in the U.S. are women, yet 100 percent of physicians in Congress are men. To date, there have only been two female physicians elected to Congress.

However, in the coming midterm election, there are six races with a chance at making history. It’s these battles which could make 2018 “The Year of the Female Physician.”

I remember being a first-time voter in 1992, labeled at the time “The Year of the Woman.” I was a sophomore at Michigan State University and turned 18 just three days before the election. Following the contentious Supreme Court hearings involving Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill, an unprecedented number of female candidates were vying for office that election year.

President George H. W. Bush was vilified for an appalling answer to the question of when his party might nominate a woman for President. “This is supposed to be the year of the women in the Senate,” he quipped. “Let’s see how they do. I hope a lot of them lose.” Frustrated about the state of gender inequality in politics, a little-known “mom in tennis shoes,” Patty Murray, decided to run for the U.S. Senate to represent Washington. She won, paving the way for an unprecedented number of women to enter national politics over the next 30 years. Still, very few of them have come with a background in medicine.

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Since 1960, just 49 physicians have been elected to the U.S. House or Senate.  Currently there are 15 physicians serving in Congress, 13 of whom are Republican and all of whom are men. Technically, the first female physician to win a congressional election was a non-voting delegate from the Virgin Islands, Rep. Donna Christian-Christensen. The only two voting members were former Reps. Nan Hayworth of New York and Shelley Sekula-Gibbs of Texas, both Republicans.

In 2018, eight Democratic female physicians ran for Congress: Dawn Barlow (TN-6), Kyle Horton (NC-7), Danielle Mitchell (TN-3), Hiral Tipirnini (AZ-8), Jennifer Zimmerman (FL-1), Shannon Hader (WA-8), Kim Schrier (WA-8), and Nadia Hashimi (MD-6). After state primaries, six remain in contention for Congressional seats. Here’s who they are, and what their election could portend:

Dr. Dawn Barlow is an internal medicine physician running in Tennessee’s 6th Congressional District. She is married to an Iraq War veteran and hopes to improve the health of veterans. She supports preserving the 10 essential benefits of the ACA, Medicaid expansion and a single-payer system.

Dr. Kyle Horton is an internal medicine physician running for the seat in North Carolina’s 7th District. She wants to lower the Medicare age to 50 and provide universal health coverage though public option coverage that can be purchased. Her focus is to reduce pharmaceutical costs, expand Medicaid and Medicare, and fund the Children’s Health Insurance Plan (CHIP.)

Dr. Danielle Mitchell is a family physician running in Tennessee’s 3rd District. Raised in poverty, she lost her 12-year-old brother to a life-threatening, though treatable, medical condition due to inability to afford health coverage. She supports universal health care, the preservation of Medicare and Medicaid, and making pharmaceuticals more affordable.

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Hiral Tipirnini, MD, a candidate in Arizona’s 8th District, is an emergency physician who supports repairing the ACA, rather than repealing it. She wants those under 65 to “buy-in” to Medicare and feels free market competition is the best way to rein in healthcare costs.

Jennifer Zimmerman, MD, is a pediatrician and Filipino immigrant who is running in Florida’s 1st District. Her campaign slogan is apropos: “This woman can.” Having faced adversity in her formative years, she believes in Medicare and Medicaid expansion and universal healthcare.

One of this year’s most watched races is in Washington State’s 8th District, where Dr. Kim Schrier is vying for the open seat vacated by Rep. Dave Reichert. Dr. Schrier is a physician, wife, and mother with a broad view of the world. She is also a patient who was diagnosed with Type I Diabetes as a teenager.

Her academic resume is impressive. Despite having a chronic disease, she earned an Astrophysics degree from UC Berkeley, finished medical school at UC Davis, and did her residency at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford, one of the top pediatric programs in the country. She lacks deep political ties, not unlike Sen. Murray did once upon a time. Practicing as a pediatrician in Issaquah for the past 16 years lends her a unique perspective — one currently missing when Congress debates issues of women’s healthcare, reproductive rights, and children’s health. Her steely resolve to strengthen our healthcare system so every person has access to affordable, high-quality care is one ideal the nation should endorse.

Physicians are experts on the implementation of policies which facilitate an effective healthcare system. These six female physicians have the knowledge, intelligence, and determination that Congress and the nation need. I, for one, plan to keep my fingers crossed that these female physicians make history on election night.

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Niran Al-Agba (@silverdalepeds) is a third-generation primary care physician in solo practice in an underserved area in Washington State who blogs at peds-mommydoc.blogspot.com.