Abraham Flexner's 1910 report is credited with promoting critical reforms in medical education. Because Flexner advocated scientific rigor and standardization in medical education, his report has been perceived to place little emphasis on the importance of public health in clinical education and training. However, a review of the report reveals that Flexner presciently identified at least three public-health-oriented principles that contributed to his arguments for medical education reform: (1) The training, quality, and quantity of physicians should meet the health needs of the public, (2) physicians have societal obligations to prevent disease and promote health, and medical training should include the breadth of knowledge necessary to meet these obligations, and (3) collaborations between the academic medicine and public health communities result in benefits to both parties.
In this article, commemorating the Flexner Centenary, the authors review the progress of U.S. and Canadian medical schools in addressing these principles in the context of contemporary societal health needs, provide an update on recent efforts to address what has long been perceived as a deficit in medical education (inadequate grounding of medical students in public health), and provide new recommendations on how to create important linkages between medical education and public health.
Contemporary health challenges that require a public health approach in addition to one-on-one clinical skills include containing epidemics of preventable chronic diseases, reforming the health care system to provide equitable high-quality care to populations, and responding to potential disasters in an increasingly interconnected world. The quantitative skills and contextual knowledge that will prepare physicians to address these and other population health problems constitute the basics of public health and should be included throughout the continuum of medical education.