Democrat senators vote for public health policies four times more often than republicans: study

January 9, 2017 by Frank Otto
A breakdown of the public halth voting tendencies found in the study by political party, region and gender of the senators. Credit: Drexel University's Dornsife School of Public Health

Democrat senators are roughly four times as likely to use their vote to positively affect public health policies than their Republican colleagues, according to a Drexel University study that confirms political polarization around the issue.

Looking at numbers dating from 1998 through 2013, Jonathan Purtle, DrPH, an assistant professor in Drexel's Dornsife School of Public Health, found that the average split between support is a whopping 67 percentage points when it comes to legislation endorsed by the American Public Health Association (APHA), a 140-year-old professional organization dedicated to advocating for improved public health in the United States. Democrats voted in line with APHA's recommendations 88.3 percent of the time, on average, while Republicans' average was just 21.3 percent.

"The findings are concerning—but not surprising," Purtle said of his study, published in SSM-Population Health. "They empirically show that the of public health policy is indeed as bad as it anecdotally seems—and has been bad for at least 15 years."

To measure the differences in public health support, Purtle, along with fellow Drexel faculty member Neal Goldstein, PhD, and a pair of (now former) graduate students—Eli Edson and Annamarie Hand—examined APHA's Annual Congressional Record for each year during the study period. The Record identifies legislation introduced into Congress that could have major effects—either good or bad—on public health, establishes how the Association would vote, then records whether each senator voted that way.

The highest difference between Democrats and Republicans occurred in 2011, when Democrats voted the way APHA would have 97.5 percent of the time, while Republicans voted that way just 6.1 percent of the time. That difference amounted to 91.4 percentage points. The narrowest difference came in 2008, when the difference was 42.9 percentage points.

Purtle and his team did not just look at party affiliation, but also measured demographic data, including each senator's gender, the state they represent and what region that state is in.

After statistically controlling for political party, geographic region and other factors, it was determined that female senators actually averaged 7.1 percentage points higher than their male colleagues when it came to voting for positive public health measures.

Senators from Southern states voted in favor of APHA-endorsed legislation the least, on average. After statistically controlling for political party and other variables, Northeastern senators averaged 16.1 percentage points higher when it came to voting for APHA's policy recommendations than their southern colleagues; Western senators averaged 6.3 percentage points higher and Midwestern senators came in at 5.7 percentage points higher.

Research into such polarization on public health has been fairly sparse, according to Purtle, with his being only the third study looking into it in the last half-century.

"There are few, if any, entities that fund this kind of research, so that might be the issue," Purtle explained. "Our study was unfunded."

The dearth of research might also go beyond financial limitations.

"Researchers may not see the value in investigating questions about polarization," Purtle said. "But, to me, this study is important because it will inform the questions I ask to determine the most effective ways to communicate research evidence to policymakers and try to cultivate bipartisan support for ."

Purtle held optimism for some of the study's results. They showed that Republican senators made some progress over the span of the study: There was an average increase of 1 percentage point per year in agreement with APHA's recommendations. That average was higher than Democrats' during the period.

"I think that it's possible to get support for public health on both sides of the aisle," Purtle said. "Us folks just need to do a better job communicating. Research like this will help show us how to do that effectively."

Explore further: Local health departments key to expanding mental health care in US

More information: Jonathan Purtle et al, Who votes for public health? U.S. senator characteristics associated with voting in concordance with public health policy recommendations (1998–2013), SSM - Population Health (2017). DOI: 10.1016/j.ssmph.2016.12.011

Related Stories

Local health departments key to expanding mental health care in US

January 5, 2016
Local health departments could play a significant role in tackling mental health issues in the United States, according to a recent study conducted by faculty in Drexel's Dornsife School of Public Health.

Federal legislation ignores PTSD toll on civilians

November 11, 2014
Federal laws explicitly addressing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have overwhelmingly focused on the needs of military personnel and veterans, according to a new analysis published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress.

What the New York Times gets wrong about PTSD

May 19, 2016
Believe it or not, both the public and policy-makers often get their ideas from the media. When those ideas are formed about something as serious and impactful as posttraumatic stress disorder, it's important for the media ...

Political polarization among voters likely to have effect on future health policy

October 26, 2016
An in-depth analysis of results from 14 national public opinion polls that looked at how Republican and Democratic likely voters in the 2016 presidential election view the health policy issues raised during the election campaign ...

Today is [Insert Health Issue Here] Awareness Day—is that making us healthier?

April 16, 2015
"We contend that the health awareness day has not been held to an appropriate level of scrutiny given the scale at which it has been embraced," write Jonathan Purtle, DrPH and Leah Roman, MPH in a peer-reviewed commentary ...

Recommended for you

Exploring the potential of human echolocation

June 25, 2017
People who are visually impaired will often use a cane to feel out their surroundings. With training and practice, people can learn to use the pitch, loudness and timbre of echoes from the cane or other sounds to navigate ...

Team eradicates hepatitis C in 10 patients following lifesaving transplants from infected donors

April 30, 2017
Ten patients at Penn Medicine have been cured of the Hepatitis C virus (HCV) following lifesaving kidney transplants from deceased donors who were infected with the disease. The findings point to new strategies for increasing ...

'bench to bedside to bench': Scientists call for closer basic-clinical collaborations

March 24, 2017
In the era of genome sequencing, it's time to update the old "bench-to-bedside" shorthand for how basic research discoveries inform clinical practice, researchers from The Jackson Laboratory (JAX), National Human Genome Research ...

The ethics of tracking athletes' biometric data

January 18, 2017
(Medical Xpress)—Whether it is a FitBit or a heart rate monitor, biometric technologies have become household devices. Professional sports leagues use some of the most technologically advanced biodata tracking systems to ...

Financial ties between researchers and drug industry linked to positive trial results

January 18, 2017
Financial ties between researchers and companies that make the drugs they are studying are independently associated with positive trial results, suggesting bias in the evidence base, concludes a study published by The BMJ ...

Best of Last Year – The top Medical Xpress articles of 2016

December 23, 2016
(Medical Xpress)—It was a big year for research involving overall health issues, starting with a team led by researchers at the UNC School of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health who unearthed more evidence that ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.