Political polarization in the United States goes beyond expected ideological differences between liberals and conservatives. It also affects views on seemingly nonpolitical issues like health, as has been evident during the COVID-19 pandemic. If people disagree about COVID-19 due to their political beliefs, does that disagreement extend to doctors as well? Evidence in a recent study suggests it does. Physicians’ political views—and the media they consume—may affect their treatment recommendations for COVID-19 patients.

In a report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, faculty members from the University of Pittsburgh and HKS Associate Professor of Public Policy Julia Minson share findings from an experiment on the political polarization of COVID-19 treatments. “The results of our experiment reveal that political ideology colors the evaluation of scientific evidence to a greater degree when it pertains to a politicized treatment,” the authors write.

The authors recruited 592 critical care physicians and 900 laypeople and surveyed them between April 2020 and April 2022. Doctors were asked to evaluate a vignette about a severely ill COVID-19 patient and make treatment recommendations. Laypeople were asked to share their beliefs about treatment (but not make treatment recommendations). Both groups were asked about their views on COVID-19 vaccines, masks, and related issues, and were also asked about what news media they consume.

The physician and laypeople groups were also presented with information about a scientific study that did not find evidence supporting the efficacy of a COVID-19 treatment. Some participants saw a version of the study where the treatment was identified as ivermectin —one of the non-standard drugs that former President Donald Trump and his allies promoted as a COVID-19 treatment. Other participants saw a made-up drug name. Participants were then asked about whether they found the study informative and rigorous and whether they thought the authors were biased.

Julia Minson.

“The results of our experiment reveal that political ideology colors the evaluation of scientific evidence to a greater degree when it pertains to a politicized treatment.”

Julia Minson

“After reading otherwise identical results,” the researchers write, “partisans’ responses were more polarized when the drug was identified as ivermectin relative to when it was anonymized, with participants who were more conservative reporting that the evidence was less informative, the study was less methodologically rigorous, and the authors were more likely to be biased.”

The authors also found that, within the physician group, “conservative physicians were approximately five times more likely than their liberal and moderate colleagues to say that they would treat a hypothetical COVID-19 patient with hydroxychloroquine”—another non-standard treatment that Trump advocated.

Ultimately, the authors find strong evidence that polarized views about COVID-19 can influence even “highly trained professionals making informed judgments within their area of expertise” and that doctors’ views of a scientific study may be influenced by political views and associated media consumption (conservatives in the study reported a strong preference for Fox News).

“These results,” they write, “also provide insight into the causes of regional variation in the use of hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin, both of which have been prescribed by physicians at much higher rates in conservative counties.”

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