On September 28, 1864, exactly 150 years ago this weekend, the first meeting of the International Workingmen’s Association (IWA) was convened at St. Martin’s Hall, London. Among the attendees was a relatively obscure German journalist by the name of Karl Marx. Though Marx did not speak during the meeting, he soon began playing a crucial role in the life of the organization, in part because he was assigned the task of drafting its founding documents.
The work of the IWA and Marx is increasingly relevant to the practice of medicine today, largely because of the rapidly shrinking percentage of US physicians who own their own practices. This moves physicians into the category of what Marx and his associates called, “working people.” According to data from the American Medical Association, in 1983 76% of physicians were self-employed, a number that had fallen in 2012 to 53%. And the trend is accelerating. It is estimated that in 2014, 3 in 4 newly hired physicians will go to work for hospitals and health systems.
To put this change in Marx’s terms, the rapid fall in physician self-employment means that a shrinking percentage of physicians own what he called the means of production. In his view, this alienates workers – in this case physicians – from other physicians, themselves, the work they do, and from patients. Whether we agree with Marx on every point, his writings on this topic provides a provocative perspective from which to survey the changing landscape of contemporary medicine.