Exit polls from the recent election cycle show that a large percentage of those who voted were first-time voters. The last two national elections have seen a spike in voter registration and a higher level of participation on election day, arguably one of the most direct ways the public can participate in the democratic process.

While registering to vote can take many forms, such as signing up at the local post office or with a paid canvasser in front of a grocery store, a group of physicians is taking the initiative to provide this service along with their primary duty, which is medical care and treatment.

Dr. Rishi Manchanda became interested in discovering if his patients were voting while he was working at the Venice Family Clinic.

“There’s only so much that I can do within the walls of the clinic,” Manchanda said in a recent interview. “I realized that, ultimately, one of the best ways to help improve my patients’ lives was to help them get more involved in civic life, and an important part of that is voting.”

Manchanda is the founder and national chair of Rx: Vote, an effort by the National Physicians Alliance (NPA) to help their patients become more involved in the political process. It is a nonpartisan effort, and no doctor is permitted to advocate on a particular party or candidate’s behalf.

The doctor feels that helping his patients become more civic-minded is a role that many of his colleagues believe is an important component to their work as doctors, especially those who toil in health clinics, where many of their clients are the working poor or often economically disadvantaged.

“Just as I encourage my patients to exercise their bodies and their minds, I also encourage them to exercise their right to vote,” said Manchanda.

The registration effort began in March, and there are currently 150 sites across the nation where doctors provide healthcare along with the opportunity to register to vote. Seven, including the Venice Family Clinic, are in Los Angeles County.

Ken Alpern, a Mar Vista dermatologist, sees Rx: Vote as a great benefit to medical patients and clients of health clinics, as long as the physicians act in a non-partisan fashion.

“I think that this is a good idea overall, but one that is fraught with potential peril in that it could be construed that physicians are pursuing their own political and/or financial interests, rather than the more noble goal of getting people to vote,” Alpern cautioned.

A disclaimer on the Rx: Vote Web site states that the organization is nonpartisan.

“While the National Physicians Alliance may issue information related to health and political issues, neither the NPA nor its campaigns or projects endorse any candidates for public office,” the statement reads. “Any political statements or endorsements made by individuals or organizations adding information to our Web site do not represent a political endorsement, the position or the policy of the NPA. Any candidate for public office claiming an endorsement from the NPA is doing so without NPA’s permission.”

Alpern, who is a member of the Mar Vista Community Council, is an advocate of increased public participation at all levels of government.

“Asking people to become involved is, when observed with my Neighborhood Council and civic efforts, clearly one that I’m all for,” he said. “It’s the perception that I fear.”

Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder/ County Clerk Dean Logan thinks that any method of registering more citizens should be applauded.

“Any effort to promote civic engagement and encourage more people to register to vote is something that we would view very positively,” Logan told The Argonaut.

Manchanda and other doctors note that healthcare reform is often cited as one of the public’s most important concerns and it is incumbent upon everyone to be aware of who is shaping public policy in this regard.

“I don’t think that anyone would say that any type of healthcare reform doesn’t require patient involvement,” Jerry Flanagan, a patient advocate for the Santa Monica-based Consumer Watchdog, told The Argonaut. “Encouraging patients to get involved politically is critical.”

Manchanda believes that the needs of citizens from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are often ignored by elected officials at all levels because they are seen as a constituency that does not regularly vote.

“When you are not at the table, your interests are often left off the menu,” he asserted.

The Venice Family Clinic is in full support of what physicians like Manchanda are doing.

“Many of our patients feel disenfranchised from the political process, given everything that is going on in their lives,” said Ana ZeledÛn Friendly, the clinic’s associate director. “After we reviewed the materials that the doctors were making available to the patients and we determined that it was nonpartisan, we thought that it was an important service that our doctors were doing.”

Flanagan said that increased voter participation was crucial in determining the November elections nationwide.

“Healthcare and the economy played a major role in this election,” the patient advocate pointed out. “National healthcare reform is going to require the public’s participation at every level of government.”

Manchanda echoed Flanagan’s belief that any reform will be dependent upon public participation.

“When patients don’t exercise their right to vote, they don’t have the ability to demand change or affect public policy,” Manchanda noted. “The ultimate success of any healthcare reform is more citizen participation in public policy.”

Doctors should avoid discussing highly-charged topics with patients so as not to influence them, says Alpern.

“Follow the example of the League of Women Voters and not the American Medical Association [AMA],” Alpern recommends, adding that he likes the AMA but recognizes that it is a lobbying group. The League of Women Voters is a nonpartisan organization.

A number of student medical organizations such as the American Medical Student Association have also been involved in the registration effort. Medical students at UCLA have also come to the Venice clinic to help register potential voters.

Manchanda, who recently began working at a clinic in South Los Angeles, plans to continue his efforts to encourage his patients to take a more active role in civic life.

“Healthcare providers realize that [healthcare reform] is a marathon, not a sprint,” Manchanda concluded. “I think that this effort represents a new movement for physicians to become more involved in our patients everyday lives, and besides making sure that they are healthy, it’s important that they also be registered to vote.”