A new study by Eitan Hersh and Matthew Goldenberg is making waves both in the medical and wider media because it appears to say what Gun-nut Nation has been saying forever about doctors and guns; namely, that doctors don’t like guns. And since doctors don’t like guns, according to this line of non-thinking, they shouldn’t talk to their patients about guns. And if they didn’t talk to their patients about guns, to follow this non-thinking line to its absolute conclusion, there wouldn’t be anything known as ‘gun violence,’ because everyone knows that gun violence is a figment of the CDC’s imagination anyway.
Okay, let’s get back to reality. To gather, analyze and understand their data, the authors first created a patient ‘vignette’ which described an initial screening interview between a male or female patient and a primary care provider (PCP.) During the interview, the patient admits to nine not-atypical health factors (tobacco and alcohol use, depression, etc.) that can cause medical problems, one of them being access to guns. The roughly 300 physicians who participated in the study were then asked to rate how much they considered each of these health factors to represent medical risk, as well as how they would respond to each one. Their responses were then evaluated based on additional data which matched each respondent with voter registration; a process that was not mentioned to survey respondents so as to avoid the possibility that survey answers would be biased based on how respondents felt their answers might be judged.
To quote the conclusion of the study: “Our findings suggest that Republican and Democratic physicians differently assess the seriousness of patient health issues that are
politically salient. Republican physicians also differ from Democratic physicians in the treatments offered to patients who present with those health issues.” And of the nine issues that comprised the health vignettes, on which particular issue did physicians identified as Republicans versus physicians identified as Democrats differ most widely regarding degree of risk? You got that one right – access to guns. Grouped by political affiliation, the two groups more or less agreed on the same degree of risk when it comes to helmets, obesity, tobacco, depression, alcohol and professionally-furnished sex. Republican-affiliated physicians rated abortion and marijuana use as their greatest concerns, Democratic-affiliated doctors viewed these two issues as having little or no concern at all. For blue doctors on the other hand, they were most concerned about access to guns, in the case of red doctors gun ownership did not register as a concern.
So far the survey results in terms of the correlation between political affiliations and views about the health risks posed by guns holds no surprise. After all, most gun owners are Republicans, most gun owners do not consider their guns as a risk to health, so there’s every good chance that many physicians who are affiliated as Republicans will also own guns. Or at least may share similar views on gun access with their patients who own guns.
Ready? Here’s the rub. Recall that the survey not only asked participating doctors to assess the degree of risk, but also asked them to describe a treatment plan for each risk vignette. And when it comes to firearms, both blue and red doctors would discuss gun risks, but the Democratic-affiliated physicians would counsel patients not to keep firearms, the GOP-affiliated physicians opted for ‘safe storage’ plans.
What this survey reveals is that even though physicians may differ on whether gun ownership poses a health risk, there appears to be across-the-board consensus that patients should be counseled about access to guns. Where the partisan divide appears is not on the issue of gun-risk per se, but on the most effective strategy for mitigating that risk. And this is a very important finding because if you listen to Gun-nut Nation, they’ll tell you that guns don’t pose any risk to health at all. And after all, who really knows more about health – the AMA or the NRA?