Students all across the country enter college as pre-med undergraduates with dreams of becoming doctors, but they lack knowledge about how America’s healthcare system works and the politics involved. Now, more than ever with the outcome of the American 2016 presidential election, research on political advertisements and the effects of certain healthcare buzzwords in them is pivotal for understanding the public’s voting preferences.
Stephen Day ’18, a Cornell pre-dental student, Policy Analysis and Management, felt concerned with his own lack of knowledge about how the healthcare system functions and how politics influences it as a whole. Day wanted to know how his own career path would be affected by those who don’t know anything about drilling cavities, but whose campaigns could rule the medical industry and Day’s possible future dental practice.
The WesCo Project, Tracking and Analyzing Political Ads on Healthcare
“I joined the Wesleyan Cornell Media Project, WesCo, because I wanted to learn about political advertisements and how candidates for those offices talked about health issues and how that influenced voters. I think it is a really important and unknown issue,” says Day.
The research lab, headed by Jeff Niederdeppe, Communication, consists of roughly 25 undergraduates who are sent political advertisements by year and political race, such as Hillary Clinton’s 2016 advertisements about healthcare by a third party firm. Day and fellow researchers search for buzzwords and sort them into coded sheets online.
When Day arrives at the lab, he is given a list of 100 or more issues, such as insurance, biotechnology, and Obamacare. He watches advertisements for those key words. He turns them into a code and writes feedback on the data, which is sent to the graduate students to plot on a regression curve and analyze for trends.
“At Wesleyan they have found really interesting data such as how Clinton spent three times as much as Trump on advertisements. Major media outlets like the Wall Street Journal have cited their data. Here at Cornell, our focus is healthcare, but we are in stage one and gathering data right now. It’s going to be exciting to see what we will find in stage two,” explains Day.
Learning the Politics of Healthcare and Healthcare Funding
For Day, the experience has been eye-opening. “I watched a 2012 political commercial for a man running for city council in Indiana. He was holding a bag of oatmeal and explained how it was constantly in his life, just like high insurance premiums. The fact that voters would take the comparison seriously was surprising,” said Day, who stressed the importance of informed voters.
The point behind WesCo is to clarify who actually funds public advertisements and to identify why past political commercials were effective and why they weren’t, due to the keywords, images, and people featured in them to attract voter’s attention.
“There are many different sources of influence with healthcare and how we interpret different information about healthcare policy. I had no idea health information was so political; I never realized how political healthcare funding was and how many different strings are attached until starting my research at WesCo.”
Inspired and Engaged
Day, who has lived 10 blocks from Weil Cornell Medicine in New York City his entire life, was inspired by the research there but wanted to be his own boss.
“Doing research is a key component to getting into dental school.”
“I can see myself working as an aesthetic-based dentist because the entire job is focused on making people smile. I love working with my hands and having independence. I felt like I needed to know how America’s healthcare system works and how politics plays into it so I can plan accordingly,” says Day.
Medical schools across the nation have increasingly looked toward students with majors that deviate from typical pre-med degrees like biology. “Doing research is a key component to getting into dental school. WesCo Media Project at Cornell was perfect because it ties together my two passions: healthcare and policy management,” explains Day.
In addition to WesCo, Day volunteers as a tutor for test preparation in the sciences at the MacCormick Secure Center, a prison for convicted juvenile males, under the age of 16, for violent felonies in adult criminal court.
“It's stressful work. Most of my students have any array of mental health issues ranging from ADHD to schizophrenia, and they haven't been in a traditional school since fifth or eighth grade. In the end though, it's incredible to watch the guys improve every week and regain the confidence they've lost,” says Day.