Can Organized Medicine Become Relevant Again?

Leigh Page


August 09, 2017

In This Article

Specialty Societies Are on a Roll

There was a time, more than half a century ago, when organized medicine played a key role in physicians' lives and held enormous sway over US healthcare policymaking.

Three quarters of physicians were simultaneously members of their county and state medical societies and the American Medical Association (AMA).[1] They spent many hours of their free time in these three groups, dealing with clinical learning, running for elected offices, holding forums, and hammering out positions on all kinds of issues.

For most physicians, that era is long gone. Now, a much smaller percentage of doctors belong to the AMA or county societies, and they're more likely to join specialty societies than any other organization.

Specialty societies enjoy very high membership rates and don't seem to have a problem staying relevant to doctors. However, each specialty society has developed its own particular position on healthcare issues, replacing the once unified voice of the House of Medicine with a chorus of sometimes conflicting views.

Meanwhile, doctors seem to be following the growing trend among all Americans of moving away from groups. The 2000 book Bowling Alone, by Robert D. Putnam, demonstrated this trend by showing that even as the number of bowlers continued to rise, the number of people in bowling leagues had markedly fallen.

The Internet Has Replaced Physician Meetings

There have been changes within medicine, too. Younger physicians seeking a work-life balance are protective of their leisure time, and a growing group of employed physicians are more skeptical of membership. The Internet allows all doctors to interact with colleagues via a variety of online forums, rather than attending meetings in person.

Despite all of these radical changes, medical societies are still popular. Specialty societies continue to surge, many state societies and some county societies are flourishing, and even the AMA has reported generally steady increases in membership.

"The demise of medical societies is greatly exaggerated," says Dean West, president of the Chicago-based Association Laboratory, a consulting firm for professional associations, including medical societies.

"The good ones are doing very well," he says. "And physicians still very much want to join organizations, but they just don't want to waste their time."

Still, many medical societies are struggling to attract members, and some are shutting down. This begs the question: How can organized medicine become relevant again? Here are a few key challenges.


Comments on Medscape are moderated and should be professional in tone and on topic. You must declare any conflicts of interest related to your comments and responses. Please see our Commenting Guide for further information. We reserve the right to remove posts at our sole discretion.