Advocacy and Community: The Social Roles of Physicians in the Last 1000 Years. Part I in a 3-Part Series.

Karen E. Geraghty, PhD (c), Matthew K. Wynia, MD, MPH

In This Article


Over the last 1000 years, the practice of medicine in the Western world has been shaped by extraordinary transformations -- in the organizational structures of healthcare delivery, the changing concepts of disease and illness, and the ethical and social issues posed to a growing and diversified profession. Some critical aspects that characterize contemporary Western medicine -- as professionally defined, highly organized and regulated, and scientifically and technologically based -- have emerged only within the last 200 years. For most of its history, medicine was practiced without these distinctions -- but precursors to many current tensions can be traced back to Hippocratic times.

In the last millennium, medicine developed in tandem with emerging political ideologies and social structures, and the roles of physicians evolved to respond to the needs of individual patients, the profession, and society at large. As medicine became increasingly effective, it was harnessed into the political objectives of promoting social cohesion and productivity. Professional regulation and social mechanisms for the equitable distribution of healthcare became significant considerations for the profession and society. In this brief 3-part history, we will trace the major organizational, conceptual, and political changes that, together, by the year 2000, created a profession with responsibilities of advocacy for individual patients in concert with attention to the needs and demands of all the individuals in the larger community.