As a youngster, Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) watched his general-practitioner father work day and night treating patients in his Nashville, Tenn., office and in their homes. More than the long hours, he remembers his father's satisfaction in knowing he was helping people, many of whom were friends and neighbors.
The dedication and pride of his father, Thomas Frist Sr., M.D., sparked the desire in the younger Frist to become a doctor--a heart surgeon, to be specific.
The son also followed the father's lead by expanding his reach beyond medical practice. While Frist Sr. entered the world of business by building what was to become the nation's largest investor-owned hospital company, Hospital Corporation of America (now HCA), his son decided to enter the world of politics.
"As a senator, I use my medical expertise to improve healthcare policy, which more broadly affects the health of the nation," Frist says.
Frist is perhaps the best-known physician politician in America, but a slowly increasing number of doctors are veering off the medical path to public service.
In West Virginia, for example, four doctors are running for state House seats and one--the director of the West Virginia State Medical Association--is seeking a state Senate seat.
On the national level, only eight House representatives and one Senate member (Frist) are doctors. No state can boast more than two professional physicians in their current legislatures.
The AMA encourages more physician involvement in public service with two training classes. The political action committee of the AMA runs both the intensive, five-day Campaign School and a weekend retreat called Candidate Workshop.
"As physicians, we have a responsibility to participate in public life and to commend our colleagues who make this contribution," says AMA past President Richard Corlin, M.D., in a letter to members.
The topsy-turvy working conditions that prompted thousands of physicians to pursue business and management opportunities also have sparked the interest in politics. Many of the physicians involved in government focus their attention on healthcare finance, access to care, quality improvement, medical liability and other issues they faced as doctors.
Fred Gillespie, M.D., a small-town ophthalmologist in West Virginia, is one of the candidates campaigning for the state House of Delegates. After more than 40 years of practice, Gillespie is pursuing what he calls "not another profession, but a civic duty."
With West Virginia in the middle of an ongoing medical liability crisis, the current legislature is failing to address important healthcare issues, Gillespie says.
Frist says doctors, with their unique perspective of healthcare policy, need to get involved--but that does not necessarily mean by running for office.
"By staying aware of the healthcare policy Congress is working on and taking time to keep our legislators informed of the real challenges facing medicine today, they can play a valuable role in the policymaking process," he says.