BY MIKE MAGEE
Medicine does not exist in a vacuum. The trusting relationships that underpin it function within an ever-changing environment of shifting social determinants. This is not new, nor surprising.
Consider for example the results of their 1851 survey of 12,400 men from the eight leading U.S. colleges had to be shocking. The AMA was only four years old at the time and being forced to acknowledge a significant lack of public interest in a physician’s services. This in turn had caused the best and the brightest to choose other professions. There it was in black and white. Of those surveyed, 26% planned to pursue the clergy, 26% the law, and less than 8% medicine.
It wasn’t that doctors with training (roughly 10% of those calling themselves “doctor” at the time) lacked influence. They had been influential since the birth of the nation. Four signers of the Declaration of Independence were physicians – Benjamin Rush, Josiah Bartlett, Lyman Hall, and Mathew Thorton. Twenty-six others were attendees at the Continental Congress. But making a living as a physician, that was a different story.
During the first half of the 19th century, the market for doctoring went from bad to worse. Economic conditions throughout a largely rural nation encouraged independent self-reliance and self-help. The politics of the day were economically liberal and anti-elitist, which meant that state legislatures refused to impose regulations or grant licensing power to legitimate state medical societies. Absent these controls, proprietary “irregular medical schools” spawned all manner of “doctors” explaining why 40,000 individuals competed for patients by 1850 – up from 5000 (of which only 300 had degrees) in 1790.
The ecology of 1850’s medicine couldn’t be worse. The marketplace was a perfect storm – equal parts stubborn self-reliance, absence of licensure to promote professional standards, diploma mills that showed little interest in scientific advancement, and massive unimpeded entry of low quality competitors.
The legitimate doctors in those early days saw 5 patients on a good day. Horse travel on poor roads, and the absence of remote systems for communication, meant doctors had to be summoned in person to attend a birth or injury. And patients lost a day’s work to travel all the way to town for a visit of questionable worth. The direct and indirect costs for both doctor and patient were unsustainable. As a result, most doctors had multiple careers to augment their income.Continue reading…