Medical students help 150 patients in voting initiative

Medical students helped patients register to vote and request absentee ballots in a voting initiative.
Medical students helped patients register to vote and request absentee ballots in a voting initiative.

Students at the medical school participated in a friendly competition against 77 medical schools across the country in October to see who could help the most patients become registered to vote.

The competition is sponsored by VotER, a non-partisan, non-profit organization that encourages patients to vote because much of patients’ healthcare experiences are determined by the policies implemented by elected officials, according to VotER’s website.

After discussing social justice issues with family friends months ago and learning about the VotER organization, M4 Brinda Ryali approached Cheryl Dickson, MD, MPH, the medical school’s associate dean for Health Equity and Community Affairs, about bringing the initiative to WMed.

Ryali worked with M2s Beth Corpuz and Mounika Pogula and students from the Social Justice Interest Group to and WMed Health leadership to have posters placed at WMed Health’s clinics. Ryali said the students knew they could do more to encourage patients to be civically engaged, so they set up booths outside WMed Health’s building at 1000 Oakland Drive in Kalamazoo to encourage patients to register to vote.

Fifteen students from the interest group spent 12 days volunteering at the booths to ask patients leaving the building if they were registered to vote and helped them register to vote if needed. They also helped patients request a mail-in ballot if that was an easier way for the patient to vote, Ryali said. Patients were able to scan a QR code provided by VotER to register to vote or request an absentee ballot.

Ryali said the medical school’s providers in Pediatrics and Internal Medicine also wanted printed VotER badges for their providers to wear to encourage patients to vote.

“I think patients hopefully see that us putting in the effort for voter registration that we care as providers not just about their health, but also about healthcare policy and the state of healthcare,” Ryali said. 

Overall, the group’s effort made a difference for 150 of WMed Health’s patients. As of the October 19 deadline to register to vote in Michigan, 50 patients registered to vote and 100 patients requested mail-in ballots with the group’s help. WMed finished 26th out of 77 medical schools that were competing to help the most patients.

Ryali said the effort offered an easy way to get registered for people who needed an extra push, but it also highlighted the barriers to voting for some people. In one example, a patient had trouble filling out the form on her phone and didn’t have a printer to send in her request for an absentee ballot, Ryali said

“It made it very obvious how many barriers there are to voting,” Ryali said. “This woman didn’t want to go to the polls on Election Day because of the risk of COVID-19, but she also didn’t grasp the technology and didn’t have access to a printer.” 

Ryali said the students went above and beyond for that patient and printed a form for her to mail in.

Dr. Dickson said having WMed involved in the VotER initiative is a great way to connect with people in the community, particularly those who find it difficult to register to vote.

“There are ways we can support the community and ways we can impact the community in a holistic way,” Dr. Dickson said. “Voting is a key and is such a right for all of us. It’s important to recognize the needs of communities that may be marginalized in some ways, in ways that can be holistic and helpful.”

Dr. Dickson said the link between health and voting is strong, especially in local issues.

“The vote has power because when we think about the social determinants of health and what really affects health outcomes,” Dr. Dickson said. “For example, housing and local proposals for improving housing, where new grocery stores with fresh fruits and vegetables are planned, and what transportation routes look like all have directly impact people’s health outcomes.”