Abdul El-Sayed has made his doctor credentials the focal point of his campaign for governor, offering a “Medicare for all” state-run health insurance program last week as the prescription to fix what ails the state”s economy and people.
But El-Sayed is not licensed to practice medicine in Michigan, according to state records, a fact he tends to omit from his resume in campaign literature, in which he uses the professional title of “physician.”
On the campaign trail, in published commentaries and at debates with other candidates vying to be Michigan’s next chief executive, El-Sayed, a progressive Democratic firebrand, routinely talks about being a doctor and has made strong suggestions that he has practiced medicine.
“I’m a doctor,” El-Sayed said during the May 31 bipartisan gubernatorial debate at the Mackinac Policy Conference. “I’m the only person up on this stage who has had to deliver a diagnosis — and then watch as somebody had to worry about how they were going to pay for it, let alone what the treatment was for that ailment. That should never happen in Michigan.”
“I’m the only person running for governor who has had to look somebody in the eye, deliver a diagnosis, and then realize that their worst day that week wasn’t the day they got their diagnosis,” El-Sayed told supporters. “It was the day they realized they didn’t have the means for payment for their care.”
Columbia University records show El-Sayed graduated in 2014 with a Medical Doctorate degree from the prestigious Ivy League school. Before med school, El-Sayed earned a doctorate degree in public health from Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes scholar.
El-Sayed says he worked as a sub-intern during med school at NewYork-Presbyterian’s Allen Hospital near the Bronx, where he treated patients as part of his study of medicine.
“My job was, in effect, to be the junior doctor who took care of the patient,” El-Sayed said in a June 1 speech in Southfield, where he detailed his “Michicare” single-payer plan.
As part of their education, fourth-year medical school students go on rounds with attendant doctors in hospitals.
“But you don’t do diagnosis — you’re still a student,” said Mohammed Arsiwala, M.D., a Livonia internist and president-elect of the Michigan State Medical Society. “You’re under supervision. You can’t do patient management.”
Arsiwala, a member of the Michigan Board of Medicine, the state’s physician-licensing body, thinks El-Sayed is walking a fine line in publicly presenting his medical credentials as a candidate for governor.
“Once you finish medical school, you can call yourself a doctor,” Arsiwala said. “But if you’re not practicing medicine, I don’t think you should call yourself one. If you don’t have a license, how are you going to call yourself a doctor?”
El-Sayed dismisses questions about his use of the terms doctor and physician.
“I have a degree that’s called a Medical Doctorate, which makes me a medical doctor,” El-Sayed said in an interview with Crain’s. “People are going to try and chip away, they always do. That’s the nature of politics.”
At Allen Hospital, El-Sayed said, he found medical treatment limiting in addressing the underlying causes of poor health — factors like the air they breathe, their socioeconomic upbringing and the lack of responsiveness from their government.
El-Sayed recalls in campaign stump speeches finding one HIV-stricken patient he had spent weeks caring for in the hospital on a subway car one night and making a decision to rescind a hospital residency application and instead pivot to public health scholarship and, eventually, advocacy.
That led El-Sayed back to Detroit in 2015 to become the city’s health department director at age 30 (Because El-Sayed was not actually a licensed physician, the city had to hire Joneigh Khaldun, M.D., to be Detroit’s chief medical officer, city spokesman John Roach said.).
In Detroit, El-Sayed oversaw rebuilding the department after the city emerged from bankruptcy. At times, he found himself at odds with his boss, Mayor Mike Duggan, over the impact of residential water shutoffs on public health and whether housing demolitions stirred up toxic lead in the air that Detroit children breath.
“I think there’s a lot of ways that one serves as a physician. And I think the work that I have done and I continue to do is true to the core and the ethos of medicine,” El-Sayed said in an interview. “And when I took my Hippocratic oath, that is still an oath that I use to guide my work today. I’m a physician because I have an MD, but I’m also a physician because of the work that I’ve dedicated my career to.”
Whether it matters that the doctor never practiced medicine clinically is up for Democratic voters to decide in the Aug. 7 primary.
But one could argue El-Sayed’s campaign literature showing him wearing a doctor’s white lab coat is akin to graduating from law school and presenting yourself as an attorney — even though you never took or passed the bar exam.
Gretchen Whitmer, the Democratic Party establishment’s favorite for the gubernatorial nomination, has had a license to practice law in Michigan since November 1998, according the State Bar of Michigan. But we almost never hear her say, “as an attorney” in talking about issues she champions. Ditto for Attorney General Bill Schuette, the Republican front runner for governor.
Maybe that’s because society views doctors in higher esteem than lawyers — or journalists, for that matter.
On the stump, though, El-Sayed comes across as the most credible top candidate for governor when it comes to health care policy issues because he frequently reminds voters that he’s, well, a doctor.
And that fuels the fight he’s asking voters to let him wage against “CEOs from multibillion-dollar corporations” — words he increasingly uses to refer to Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan and its CEO, Daniel Loepp — without distinguishing himself from the kind of doctor who sees patients every day and the kind who got a medical degree and studies public health.
“They’ll tell you it’s impossible, you can’t do it,” El-Sayed said in Southfield about his single-payer health care plan. “Well, if you take a paycheck from Blue Cross, you can’t do it. But I’ll tell you, as a doctor, it’s definitely possible.”