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JAMA Revisited
May 25, 2021

The Social Responsibilities of Modern Medicine

JAMA. 2021;325(20):2122. doi:10.1001/jama.2020.17954

Originally Published May 28, 1921 | JAMA. 1921;76(22):1477- 1483.

Frederick R. Green, A.M., M.D., Secretary, Council on Health and Public Instruction, American Medical Association, Chicago

The problems of social medicine are peculiar to the present generation; their development is due to the change that has taken place in the relations between physicians and the public. Up to the middle of the last century, medical practice was individual. No one consulted a doctor until afflicted with some specific disorder. The only interest that the physician had in the patient was a personal one. Little was known regarding the cause of disease, the method of its transmission or the means for its prevention. If a physician was called to see a patient suffering from typhoid fever, he treated that patient until he recovered or died. There was no way of knowing how the patient had acquired the disease, or how any other individual could acquire the disease from him. The physician had no responsibility to the community, since there was no act of his, the performance or omission of which could in any way affect society, either favorably or unfavorably. All that he could do was to care for his patient and, so far as possible, in the case of those diseases which experience had shown to be infectious, to prevent others from contracting them. As Sir George Newman, the chief medical officer of the British Ministry of Health, says, up to 1850 the medical profession had no public or social functions or responsibilities except the enforcement of such crude methods of quarantine as had been developed through experience. Public health work up to the last half century was largely accidental and empiric.