Talking Points

Republicans' trust in doctors is eroding. It's a symptom of a larger disease.

What would happen if GOP voters just stopped trusting their doctors?

It's not an idle question. A new Gallup poll indicates that Republicans are feeling increasingly shaky about the medical profession: The number who say they are confident in their physician's medical advice has dropped 13 points since 2010. Twenty-two percent report they trust their doctor less than they did just a year ago. 

Those numbers won't surprise Americans who have watched COVID vaccines take center stage in our partisan culture wars. Roughly 40 percent of self-identified Republicans remain unvaccinated against the coronavirus, egged on by hypocritical conservative "thought leaders" — like Fox News' Tucker Carlson — who have promoted anti-vax hysteria. (The results have been deadly: The death toll in counties that voted for Donald Trump is higher than in those that supported Joe Biden.) Conservatives have spent the last year being told they can't trust their doctor's advice on vaccines. Clearly they're listening.

The question now is whether the new Gallup poll is a blip, or if it reflects a wider, longer-term trend. The latter looks likely — Gallup reported in July that Republican confidence in science itself has declined from 72 percent in the mid-1970s to 45 percent this year, withering under decades-long conservative assaults on questions like climate change and the teaching of evolution. Doctor mistrust might be part of the same phenomenon.

That's a problem: Trust between physicians and patients is an essential component of health. One 2017 study revealed that patients who have confidence in their doctors tend to adopt healthier behaviors and report fewer symptoms of illness. Another study the same year showed that breast cancer patients who had less trust in the health-care system were less likely to complete their course of treatment.  

When Republicans distrust their doctors, in other words, the more likely it is they'll get sick and stay sick.

That could lead to other ramifications. Republican and Democratic voters tend to sort themselves by geography — Democrats to the cities, GOP voters in rural areas. Those rural areas already have a tough time attracting doctors, and the result is that many sick people go without care. Gallup's poll makes it easy to imagine a vicious cycle where even more doctors would decide not to take jobs in places where they'll be ignored, which would lead to more sick people, which in turn would help hasten the decline of those rural Republican communities.

It's difficult to think that would be good for the GOP. But conservatives have been waging a war on expertise for a long time. Unfortunately for them, that war could take a serious toll on the health of the Republican Party and its voters.