The Political Future of Social Medicine: Reflections on Physicians as Activists

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The academic discipline of social medicine has always had a political and policy advocacy component, in addition to its core functions of research and teaching. Its origins lie in the 18th and 19th centuries, in the work of Johann Peter Frank and Rudolph Virchow, among others. Virchow’s dictum that “politics is nothing else but medicine on a large scale” highlights that most social determinants of health are politically determined and shape population health. Yet despite intense epidemiological and sociological research on the social determinants of health, less attention has been paid to this political and policy dimension.

During the 1960s, the author and many other clinicians were directly involved in attempts to use health care institutions to foster structural change. However, the author argues that efforts to assist individual patients and more effectively manage their interactions with the health care system, as described in the articles in this issue’s special collection on “structural competency,” while worthy and useful, do not confront root causes. Going forward, efforts to effect structural change must take place outside the arena of the clinical encounter and involve interprofessional teams and collaborations with nongovernmental organizations. They should intervene directly on the structures that contribute to illness such as poor housing, income and wealth inequality, inferior education, racism and residential segregation, and toxic concentrations of extreme poverty in urban areas. Collectively, these efforts—within and outside the spheres of medicine—represent the real operative form of structural competency.

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