Philip Alcabes discusses myths of health, disease and risk.

The Agony of the A.M.A.

Sam Stein at Huffington Post comments on the American Medical Association’s latest attempt to (as he puts it) torpedo health care reform by opposing any government-sponsored insurance plan.  The AMA’s announcement was reported Wednesday night in the NY Times.

At DailyKos, doctoraaron explains why he is resigning from the AMA, and is participating in Physicians for a National Health Program.  And DemFromCT notes the high public support for reform, provided it’s affordable.

The AMA is already catching flak for sounding like, well, a bunch of doctors interested only in preserving physicians’ privilege.  Of course, that’s what the AMA is – it’s a trade guild, and (it thinks) it’s doing its job.  The only surprise – especially given how many physicians are firmly behind reform of health care financing — is that the organization is so willing to be so open about being so neanderthal.

The AMA’s statement sounds to us like the organization’s dying gasp.  It’s standing up for a vanishing version of what it means to be a doctor.

In fact, the history of the AMA’s own stance toward social insurance is revealing.  In The Social Transformation of American Medicine, Paul Starr explains that until the 1930s the AMA didn’t like the idea of any medical insurance at all — it was fearful that physicians would fall under the sway of the public health establishment if social insurance were instituted and under the control of insurance companies in the case of private insurance. The AMA has always been more worried about doctors losing control over their own practice than about financing.  Patient care isn’t the AMA’s job, and never has been.

Why social health insurance failed in the U.S. is a complicated story.  It involves ideology, of course, but it’s inflected with plenty of nuance:  the troubled relation of labor unions to American industry, the not-so-troubled relation of industrial corporations to the American political establishment, political favor currying, the rise of scientific medicine, the entire question of whether there should be insurance for medical care.  Through it all runs the AMA’s devotion to the image of the physician as independent decision maker.

The reason for the AMA’s death agony today is that it’s defending a dying species.  Physicians don’t get to make independent decisions much.  And the backward-looking AMA isn’t showing any interest in forward thinking about the positive roles that doctors could play in a really care-centered set-up.

The business of doctoring, which was once a trade that pitted physicians against herbalists, apothecaries, surgeons, patent-medicine hawkers, faith healers, etc., competing for access to Americans’ bodies, has become just a trade, once again. Only now, it’s not that physicians are competing with snake-oil salesmen — it’s that the business of caring for Americans’ health is no longer managed by a medical professional working one-on-one with a patient.

That individual suffering isn’t the main focus of the big, costly healthcare system is well known to anyone who has sought diagnosis of a troubling condition or relief from chronic problems.  That physicians are themselves just cogs in the system isn’t so obvious — until you listen to them talk about their own frustrations.  They wish their practice could be driven by patients’ needs or, at least, by evidence on what treatments work best.  But often the control is exerted by the institution, and by insurance companies’ policies on pricing and payout.

The AMA is still fighting for the vanishing breed, though.  Someday soon, the AMA will have to disband because its constituency, the exalted independent physician, will have become extinct and the organization will have failed to recognize just what the rest of America — including most physicians — wants.  Meanwhile, don’t be surprised to hear its dying gasps.


Just saw Abraham Verghese’s “To the AMA:  It’s Not About You” post at Atlantic magazine today.   He urges the organization, “please don’t tell the American public (a public already disenchanted with physicians and health care) that you are doing this for their benefit because of your great concern for the patient. The public does not believe you. They aren’t that naive.”

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This entry was posted on Friday, June 12th, 2009 at 10:14 am and is filed under Health Professions, News, Physicians, public health. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

One Response to “The Agony of the A.M.A.”

Phillip Huggan says:

USA put out a Battle of Falulljah video game, glorifying the killing of an entire city of males. Short the fuck out of USD and leave Obama’s legacy as the Banker Prez.