Originally appearing in Academic Medicine, SMA Founder Dr. Fitzhugh Mullan recalls the poverty, bravery, ignorance, brotherhood, racism, hate, and love he experienced that summer, which led him to conclude he would become a civil rights doctor. When he returned to medical school in Chicago, the author and his classmates began organizing students around the idea of social justice. They intended to take on society’s big problems even as their medical education ignored them.
More than 50 years later, the author reflects on the sense of mission that attracts many people to medicine. A mission more than the desire to heal. A mission to recognize and address the inequities in the world and, more to the point, in access to health and health care. Medical schools have a unique role or “social mission” in that they are the only institutions that can build doctors for the future. The culture of the medical school is a powerful influence on the values of its graduates and, ultimately, the physicians of the country. The articulated, cerebrated, strategized mission that a medical school selects for itself has an enormous influence on who gets to be a doctor and what the values of that doctor are in the future, and that is why, the author argues, medical schools must incorporate social mission.
To achieve this vision, medical education must move beyond Abraham Flexner’s 20th-century legacy. This is not to disown Flexner, science, or research but to rethink medical education based on the equity challenges that confront our population now. Physicians and the institutions that train them need to see social mission as a living part of the medical skill set rather than an elective perspective exercised by some who are particularly compassionate.