Medical Activism: A Foundational Element of Professional Identity

David R. Kopacz, MD

The “first task of the doctor is therefore political: the struggle against disease must begin with a war against bad government,” (Foucault).[1]

The idea of medical activism has been criticized lately, from both inside[2] and outside[3] of the medical field. However, medical activism is a foundational element of professional identity – it defines who we are as professionals as opposed to being technicians, prescribers, protocol managers, or employees.

Activism can take many forms, but its essence is when professional responsibility extends beyond the individual to the community, the country, and the world. Medical activism occurs when we look up from our computer screens and electronic medical records and look outside the four walls of the clinic to be moral agents promoting health & wellness in the world. Medical activism is what Dr. Berwick is encouraging in his recent article, “The Moral Determinants of Health,” where he argues for an expansion of the role of professionals to include societal reform. “Healers are called to heal. When the fabric of communities upon which health depends is torn, then healers are called to mend it. The moral law within insists so.”[4]

Medical activism is always needed, but sometimes it is needed more than others. The times of the Covid-19 pandemic demand that we take a fresh look at ourselves as physicians and professionals to determine the scope of our responsibilities. With political attacks, anti-public health measures, and anti-science propaganda during the pandemic, physicians and health care professionals need to speak up now more than ever. If we do not use our voices, we may lose them.

Two broad categories of medical activism are: 1) the reform of health care delivery systems, and 2) action in the political, cultural, legal, relational, and natural environments. These can also be conceptualized as internal (delivery of care in the clinic & hospital) and external (medicine in the world).

Deprofessionalization

The practice of medicine has changed greatly over the last 75 years, shifting from a practice of largely general practitioners who knew their patients over their whole lives to a fragmentation into sub-specialties, and the proliferation of multiple profit-deriving entities: the pharmaceutical industry, the insurance industry, and for-profit hospital and medical industry. During this time, doctors’ roles have shifted from independent healers engaged and embedded in communities to interchangeable and expendable bit-workers on ever more “efficient” medical assembly lines. Medicine has shifted from a focus on long-term healing relationships to a transactional, technician-based delivery system in which doctors are protocol-managers and data entry clerks.

With the rise of productivity medicine we have seen the deprofessionalization[5] and dehumanization[6] of physicians and health care professionals. Corporate medicine is not interested in moral agents or medical activists, but rather what Foucault called “docile bodies,” to play limited roles within the institution. Moral agents and medical activists function independently or semi-autonomously, rather than as interchangeable technicians who dispense the same, generic, non-individualized treatment interventions. While corporate medicine pushes propaganda of customer service – true caring, compassion, and patient-centered care can only be given human being to human being. Individuality and humanity are extraneous and problematic variables to corporate, machine medicine. 

The idea of medical activism encompasses the role of the physician as a moral agent, a member of a profession who answers to a higher calling. A professional has a moral calling that goes beyond the marketplace of the exchange of money or the influence of power.

What it Means to be a Professional

To be a professional means that one is constantly professing – similarly if one is a profess-or. The roots of the word “profession” have to do with taking vows and declaring openly and to make public statement. The etymology of the word is related to “profess” and “prophet” going back to the ancient Proto-Indo-European root, *bha-, meaning “to speak, tell, say.”[7] What we are doing as professionals is continual professing – to declare openly and to speak, tell, say.

Our job as professionals is to be prophets of health (which is different than the profits of the health). The industry, the organization, the institution is not an inherently moral creation, it is more like a machine than a holder of morality, and it is the job of professionals within the system to be the moral leadership of the institution. To become moral agents in our world, we need to tear ourselves away from the never-ending demands of the Electronic Medical Records system, and raise our gaze from the computer screen to the world we all live in. To be a professional is to be more than a technician blindly following orders. To be professional means that we answer to a higher calling and we engage our hearts as well as our minds to become moral agents for public health. This is what psychiatrist Carl Bell called, “getting rid of the rats.”[8] He learned that a good doctor won’t just treat a rat bite, but will help to get rid of the rats in the neighborhood. He thus saw the role of the doctor and psychiatrist as not a technician in an office, but as an engaged professional intervening in the world.

Witnessing Professional

Throughout his career, Robert Jay Lifton has written about the idea of the witnessing professional. He describes the shift toward “malignant normality,” “the imposition of a norm of destructive or violent behavior, so that such behavior is expected or required of people.”[9]

As citizens, and especially as professionals, we need to bear witness to malignant normality and expose it. We then become what I call “witnessing professionals,” who draw upon their knowledge and experience to reveal the danger of that malignant normality and actively oppose it. That inevitably includes entering into social and political struggles against expressions of malignant normality. (Lifton) [10]

The New Professional

In order to teach the next generation of doctors, healers, and clinicians, we need to provide good role models for students to emulate. This is the transmission of knowledge and wisdom that happens from one generation to the next. Without medical professionalism, students may become technically proficient and yet not be true professionals and healers. We teach students science, but we do not teach them to use what Stevan Weine calls “the witnessing imagination.”[11]

Author and educator, Parker Palmer speaks of the new professional, “a person who not only is competent in his or her discipline but also has the skill and the will to resist and help transform the institutional pathologies that threaten the profession’s highest standards.”[12]

Palmer states that “the very institutions in which we practice our crafts pose some of the gravest threats to professional standards and personal integrity. Yet higher education does little if anything, to prepare students to confront, challenge, and help change the institutional conditions under which they will soon be working.”[13]           

The notion of a “new professional” revives the root meaning of the word. This person can say, ‘In the midst of the powerful force-field of institutional life, where so much conspires to compromise the core values of my work, I have found firm ground on which to stand―the ground of personal and professional identity and integrity―and from which I can call myself, my colleagues, and my profession back to our true mission. (Palmer) [14]

An Abbreviated History of Medical Activism

Wash your hands – this seems obvious to us now – but in 1850 Semmelweis tried to convince doctors that they should wash their hands after leaving off doing autopsies and before examining mothers who had just given birth. He was ridiculed, lost his appointment, and died in a mental institution.[15]

In the late 1800s, Virchow was tasked by the Prussian government to research an outbreak of typhus. His prescription was social and political: elimination of social inequality.[16] He came back with recommendations regarding poverty, services, and even political recommendations. He was fired and later wrote, “Medicine is a social science and politics is nothing more than medicine on a large scale,”[17] and that doctors “are the natural attorneys of the poor.”[18]

In 2015, pediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha noticed that the children in her practice in Flint, Michigan, had high levels of lead. She wrote about her work as a medical activist in her book, What the Eyes Don’t See.[19]

“This is a story of resistance, of activism, of citizen action, of waking up and opening your eyes and making a difference in our community…I wrote this book to share the terrible lessons that happened in Flint, but more importantly, I wrote this book to share the incredible work that we did, hand in hand with our community, to make our community care about our children.” (Hanna-Attisha) [i]

Dr. Fauci.

Examples of Health Care Critique & Reform

There are many different levels of health care reform – from the way a doctor is present with a patient, to how clinics are structured, to how reimbursement occurs, and to how we, as a society, value (or de-value) health care as a human right as all other modern democracies do. An ongoing critique of the contemporary practice of medicine is a moral duty of physicians. It is up to us, as professionals, to hold true to the mission and purpose of health care: caring for people who are suffering. Institutions may have vision and mission statements but they are incapable of moral agency and compassion because those are human traits, not bureaucratic functions.

I have written about dehumanization in medicine and the need for re-humanizing ourselves, our practices, and the culture of medicine – calling for a compassion revolution and a counter-curriculum of re-humanization in my book Re-humanizing Medicine.[20] Many others have called for bringing caring back into health care: Robin Youngson,[21] Victor Montori,[22] Arthur Kleinman,[23] Mukta Panda,[24] and Rana Awdish,[25] to name a few.

Other levels of health care reform can be found in the work of L. Gordon Moore’s idea of the micropractice,[26] and Dr. Quentin Young’s work with Physicians for a National Health Program.[27]

Medicine in the World

Samuel Shem, in his essay, “Fiction as Resistance,” writes of turning to fiction writing as a resistance to “brutality and inhumanity, to isolation and disconnection.” His recommendations on how to resist “the inhumanities in medicine” are four suggestions:

1) “Learn our trade, in the world” to be aware that “Medicine is part of life, not vice versa”

2) “Beware of isolation. Isolation is deadly; connection heals”

3) “Speak up…speaking up is essential for our survival as human beings

4) “Resist self-centeredness…learn empathy”[28]

There are many kinds of medical activism needed for our current ills, here are just a few examples:

  • Culture, Diversity, Religious Tolerance – addressing racism and intolerance
  • Human rights medicine and international trauma work
  • LGBTQ rights
  • Women’s rights & reproductive rights
  • Immigration policy
  • Public health
  • International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War
  • Peace work, recovery from war and violence
  • Gun violence as a public health issue
  • Social, Climate, Environment
  • Medical student education: preserving idealism and preventing cynicism
  • Burnout and moral injury in physicians and health care workers
  • Public Safety & the Duty to Warn

Meanwhile, back at the pandemic, we just topped 160,000 new cases in one day and the United States of America has no coordinated national policy to control the pandemic. The president has come out against science,[29] has accused doctors of profiting from the pandemic by diagnosing Covid-19 to make money,[30] and there have been many coordinated political propaganda campaigns by the president and one political party to discourage people from following basic public health measures (masking and social distancing)[31],[32],[33] and have actively encouraged unhealthy behavior (large gatherings without masks or social distancing).[34] The activist response by individual physicians through social media as well as of professional medical and scientific organizations has been swift and strong.[35],[36],[37]

Conclusion

We stand at a unique time in history – a global pandemic, smear campaigns against public health experts, attempts to silence or manipulate science for political ends, and the politicization of basic, scientific principles of public health. Now, more than ever, we as physicians, we as clinicians, need to re-claim activism as a core identity. We need to speak, tell, say, to speak openly, to speak publicly about the public health threats of this time in history. We have guidance of those physicians and clinicians who have gone before us and how they have spoken up for the health of the people and the public. Lifton’s witnessing professional and Palmer’s new professional give us a framework for social, moral, and political involvement of professionals as part of the practice of medicine and health care. We are called to become moral agents for social change as we diagnosis and treat the moral determinants of health and the public health threats of the day.

This paper only just scratches the surface of the topic of medical activism. We need classes, conferences, and an edited textbook on the topic, written by expert activists and covering the various levels of the work. Bassuk’s 1996, The Doctor-Activist: Physicians Fighting for Social Change, is a great start – but we need to move beyond the idea of medical activism as something that exceptional individuals do, to see it as a normative part of professional identity – something we all do for the health of all.


[1] Foucault M. The Birth of the Clinic. New York: Vintage Books, 1994, 38.

[2] Goldfarb S. Take Two Aspirin and Call Me by My Pronouns: At ‘woke’ medical schools, curricula are increasingly focused on social justice rather than treating illness. Wall Street Journal, 9/12/19.

[3] Haag M. Doctors Revolt After N.R.A. Tells Them to ‘Stay in Their Lane’ on Gun Policy. The New York Times, Nov. 13, 2018. The original criticism was in a Tweet from the NRA, “Someone should tell self-important  anti-gun doctors to stay in their lane. Half of the articles in Annals of Internal Medicine are pushing for gun control. Most upsetting, however, the medical community seems to have consulted NO ONE but themselves.” https://twitter.com/NRA/status/1060256567914909702

[4] Berwick DM. The Moral Determinants of Health. JAMA. 2020;324(3):225–226. doi:10.1001/jama.2020.11129.

[5] http://www.professionalsaustralia.org.au/blog/deprofessionalisation-matter/

[6] Kopacz, D. Re-humanizing Medicine: A Holistic Framework for Transforming Your Self, Your Practice, and the Culture of Medicine. Washington DC: Ayni Books, 2014.

[7] Online Etymology Dictionary for “profession,” “profess,” “prophet.” https://www.etymonline.com/search?q=profession

[8] https://beingfullyhuman.com/2020/07/18/carl-bell-md-medical-activist-human-rights-champion-with-an-indomitable-fighting-spirit/. Bell C. The Sanity of Survival: Reflections on Community Mental Health and Wellness. Chicago: Third World Press, 2004, xx.

[9] Lifton RJ. Losing Reality: On Cults, Cultism, and the Mindset of Political and Religious Zealotry. New York: The New Press, 2019, 189.

[10] Lifton RJ. Losing Reality: On Cults, Cultism, and the Mindset of Political and Religious Zealotry. New York: The New Press, 2019, 190.

[11] Weine S. (1996). The Witnessing Imagination: Social Trauma, Creative Artists, and Witnessing Professionals. Literature and Medicine, 15, 167 – 182.

[12] Palmer P. The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007, 202.

[13] Palmer P. The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007, 199.

[14] Palmer P. A New Professional: The Aims of Education Revisited. Change, Vol. 39, No. 6 (Nov-Dec, 2007), 6-12.

[15] https://www.pbs.org/newshour/health/ignaz-semmelweis-doctor-prescribed-hand-washing

[16] Mackenbach J. (2009). Politics is nothing but medicine at a larger scale: Reflections on public health’s biggest idea. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health (1979-), 63(3), 181-184. Retrieved August 8, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/20720916

[17] Quoted in Vicente Navarro. What we mean by social determinants of health. Global Health Promotion Vol. 16 (1):5-16; 2009. Original reference: Virchow R. Die medizinische Reform, 2 in Henry Ernest Sigerist, Medicine and Human Welfare 1941:93.

[18] Mackenbach J. (2009). Politics is nothing but medicine at a larger scale: Reflections on public health’s biggest idea. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health (1979-), 63(3), 181-184. Retrieved August 8, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/20720916

[19] https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2018/06/25/623126968/pediatrician-who-exposed-flint-water-crisis-shares-her-story-of-resistance

[20] Kopacz D. Re-humanizing Medicine: A Holistic Framework for Transforming Your Self, Your Practice, and the Culture of Medicine. Washington DC: Ayni Books, 2014.

[21] Youngson R. Time to Care: How to Love Your Patients and Your Job. Raglan: RebelHeart, 2012.

[22] Montori V. Why We Revolt: A Patient Revolution of Careful and Kind Care. Rochester: Patient Revolution, 2017.

[23] Kleinman A. The Soul of Care: The Moral Education of a Husband and a Doctor. New York: Viking, 2019.

[24] Panda M. Resilient Threads: Weaving Joy and Meaning into Well-Being. Palisade: Creative Courage Press, 2020.

[25] Awdish R. In Shock: My Journey from Death to Recovery and the Redemptive Power of Hope. New York: Picador, 2018.

[26] Moore LG. ‘Going Solo: Making the Leap,’ Family Practice Management. February 2002, American Academy ofFamily Physicians website, accessed April 7, 2012.http://www.aafp.org/fpm/2002/0200/p29.html .

[27] https://pnhp.org/news/dr-quentin-young-selected-obituaries-stories/

[28] Shem S. Fiction as Resistance. Annals of Internal Medicine. Vol 37(11):934-937; 2002.

[29] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/trumps-5-most-ldquo-anti-science-rdquo-moves/

[30] https://www.forbes.com/sites/brucelee/2020/10/27/trump-claims-doctors-overcounting-covid-19-coronavirus-deaths-to-make-more-money/?sh=7439b2836cb9

[31] https://www.reddit.com/r/SeattleWA/comments/jduz3x/culp_antimask_propaganda/

[32] https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2020/8/7/21357400/anti-mask-protest-rallies-donald-trump-covid-19

[33] https://www.vox.com/2020/6/20/21297693/trump-rally-tulsa-masks

[34] https://apnews.com/article/donald-trump-rallies-virus-surges-50e79fabd46472c51ecc1444184082de

[35] https://www.forbes.com/sites/brucelee/2020/10/27/trump-claims-doctors-overcounting-covid-19-coronavirus-deaths-to-make-more-money/?sh=7439b2836cb9

[36] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/leading-scientists-urge-voters-to-dump-trump/

[37] https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/respected-scientific-journals-publicly-oppose-trump

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