August 11, 1989

Academic Medicine as a Public Trust

Author Affiliations

From the Health of the Public Program, University of California, San Francisco.

From the Health of the Public Program, University of California, San Francisco.

JAMA. 1989;262(6):803-812. doi:10.1001/jama.1989.03430060099033

Academic medicine is entrusted by society with the responsibility to undertake several important social missions toward improving the health of the public, including education, patient care, and research. This trust is given implicit authority by generous public funding and considerable autonomy. Medical academia can take pride in its successes, manifested by a premier scientific establishment, the development and use of sophisticated medical technologies and drugs, and the recent dramatic declines in death rates from heart disease and stroke. Academic medicine, however, has been relatively unresponsive to a number of vexing public problems, including skyrocketing expenditures for medical care, substandard indexes of population health, uneven quality of care, an unfavorable geographic and specialty mix of physicians, and widespread disability from long-term medical and psychiatric problems. Although there are many cogent reasons why academic medicine has chosen to define its task relatively narrowly (the nature of its funding successes, the intractability of the social problems, and the attractiveness of the biomedical model), the central issue is how well academic medicine is fulfilling its responsibilities to the public. To the degree that academic medicine defines its central mission narrowly, it may violate its implicit social contract and jeopardize its primary source of financial support. Alternatively, in recognition of its public responsibilities, academic medicine can choose to expand its current activities to be more responsive to the health concerns of the general population.

(JAMA. 1989;262:803-812)