Doctor/politician: physicians often shocked by political reality

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Author: Patty Ryan
Date: January-February 2004
From: Physician Executive(Vol. 30, Issue 1)
Publisher: American College of Physician Executives
Document Type: Cover story
Length: 2,107 words

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In the Waterville, Maine, family practice of Dr. Lisa Marrache, nurses routinely redirect callers to the office of State Rep. Lisa Marrache.

Meanwhile, in Rep. Marrache's office, the answering machine delivers a cautionary note: "If you're trying to reach Dr. Lisa Marrache, you've reached the wrong number."

The physician, who is also the politician, hopes to keep stray sinus infections from tumbling into the state's transportation budget, among other possible perils.

Call it the latest specialty: In many states across the nation, there is a doctor in the House--and the Senate, and occasionally even the governor's mansion. If supporters of Dr. and Gov. Howard Dean have their way, a physician could wind up in the Oval Office for the first time in history, joining the ranks of lawyers, engineers, ranchers, generals, teachers, diplomats and a peanut farmer as U.S. president.

"A lot of people ask me, 'How could you do this?'" says Marrache, 35, elected to the Maine Legislature in 2001 while completing her residency and raising two children with her husband, a fellow physician.

"You lose a lot of money and it's difficult," she adds, "but you feel that you are making a difference--not just making the patients better, but making their lives better."

U.S. Sen. Majority Leader Bill Frist, (R-Tenn.), transplanted hearts and lungs until he won his seat in 1994. Tom Price was an orthopedic surgeon long before the Georgia Senate chose him as its first Republican majority leader. And former Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, a Democrat, practiced emergency medicine before he wrote and helped pass the Oregon Health Plan, now in its ninth year.

"I think the physician has as much place in politics as anyone else," says Kitzhaber, who was also an Oregon senator. "Hopefully, you're a citizen first and a professional second. It's always good when people make the sacrifice."

Fellow Gov. Dean's story is widely known. An internist with an MD from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Dean shared a practice with his wife, Judith, for 10 years, then got elected to the Vermont House of Representatives. In 1991, Vermont Gov. Richard Snelling died of a heart attack, leaving Dean, then lieutenant governor, in charge.

Similarly, scores of physicians now make law in state capitals and in Congress, often propelled into action by a desire to give voice to their patients and their peers.

How it begins

For Marrache, who earned her MD from the Medical College of Georgia in 1995, the transition to politics seemed natural. Her father, Paul Tessier, had won a Maine House seat while engaged in social work. Marrache, who once dabbled in student government, volunteered as a ward clerk during her internship and was later approached to run for Waterville City Council. While in residency at MaineGeneral Medical Center and the Maine-Dartmouth Family Medicine Institute, she ran against the council's incumbent chairperson--and won.

"When I found out, I was on call," she says. "They had to call me at the hospital and let me know."

Her night-float...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A112801148