A Wake-Up Call for American Medicine

Article excerpt

Health care in America seems to be in nearly permanent crisis -- a staple feature of the front page and political campaigns since Medicare and Medicaid made their debut in 1965. Thirty-five years of perpetual struggle is a long time, as living memory goes. What if the Vietnam War was still going on?

Then again, why shouldn't there be turmoil in this industry? Life expectancy has risen from 47 in 1900 to 60 years in 1944 to 80 for a child born today. The only comparable success in an activity directed at a universal fundamental human need is farming, and there the costs have gone down instead of up.

At the center of the storm are the medical schools or, in their more elaborate delineation, the academic health centers, meaning teaching hospitals and schools of public health and dentistry as well.

That cumbersome catchall term is as useful as it is unlovely, for it reminds us of the compound nature of the thing. It was from the schools of public health (and, to a lesser extent, the hospitals) that the 20th century's greatest improvements came, and those mainly in its early years: sanitation, improved living conditions and nutrition. (Remember, Louis Pasteur died only in 1895!)

Now, a revolution of similar significance looms, this one emanating from medical schools themselves, the hospitals and their new adjuncts, the biotech and pharmaceutical industries.

In the form of new drugs, tests and procedures, molecular medicine is just now moving into the delivery system. Its deep understanding of the basic mechanisms of the human body and disease promises over the next 50 years to transform medicine yet again.

But precisely at the moment of their triumph, medical schools and teaching hospitals find themselves in danger and disarray, thanks mainly to the advent of managed care. That's the emphatic warning from a distinguished physician-historian, Kenneth Ludmerer, author of the much-heralded Time to Heal: American Medical Education from the Turn of the Century to the Era of Managed Care.

Underwritten by a number of blue-chip foundations, Ludmerer's book is being billed a "the new Flexer report,'' recalling the penetrating jeremiad whose appearance 90 years ago sparked the eventual transformation of American medicine from a lagging trade in personal services to one of the crown jewels of the American economy.

I don't know if Time to Heal will achieve similar results. I hope it does. Ludmerer, a professor of both medicine and history at Washington University in St. Louis, may be (as Harvard intellectual historian Donald Fleming says he is) `'the most eminent historian of American medicine of his time and a notable figure in the medical profession as well.'' Certainly he has had unprecedented access to people and to archives. He writes with uncommon clarity about an industry of unrivalled complexity and opacity.

But Ludmerer is also a reformer bent on a mission -- rescuing medical faculties, physicians and their patients from a return to a souped-up version of the profit-driven system of commodity medicine in whose grip the health care industry found itself when the century began. And it is to that end that Ludmerer has written a magisterial narrative of the profession's largely successful struggle to escape that earlier system. Its eighteen chapters each read about as smoothly as a magazine article.

It was in 1910 that Abraham Flexner wrote Medical Education in the United States and Canada. His client was the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Muckraking in its most sophisticated form, the report lambasted medical schools for their commercialism and low standards, doctors for their parochial aims. Nothing more was required for matriculation than the ability to pay the fees; two four-month terms of lectures, the second recapitulating the first, and presto! …