No profession, excepting possibly the ministry, is regarded with greater deference than the medical profession. Our ancestors listened with awe and obedience to the warnings and behests of the medicine man, bloodletter, bonesetter, family doctor. In modern times doctors have disagreed with each other often enough to warrant laymen in questioning the infallibility of any individual healer or any sect, whether homeopath, allopath, eclectic, osteopath, or scientist. Yet to this day most of us surround the medical profession or the healing art with an atmosphere of necromancy. Even after we have given up faith in drugs or after belief is denied in the reality of disease and pain, we revere the calling that concerns itself, whether gratuitously or for pay, with conquering bodily ills.
Self-laudation continues this hold of the medical profession upon the lay imagination. One physician may challenge another's faults, ridicule his remedies, call his antitoxin dangerous poison, but their common profession he proudly styles "the most exalted form of altruism." Young men and women beginning the study or the practice of medicine are exhorted to continue its traditions of self-denial, and in their very souls to place human welfare before personal or pecuniary advancement. Newspapers repeat exhortation and laudation. We laymen pass on the story that we know is not universally true,—physicians know, physicians apply what they know without consciousness of error, physicians must be implicitly trusted.
For a physician to give poison when he means to give food is worse, not better, than for a layman to make the same mistake. Neither the moral code nor the law of self-preservation enjoins a tuberculous mother to take alcohol or to sleep in an unventilated room, even if an uninformed physician prescribes it. Instruction in physiology and hygiene would be futile if those who are educated as to the elementary facts of hygiene and physiology must blindly follow blind physicians. A family doctor who gives cod-liver oil for anæmia due to adenoids may do a child as much harm as a nurse who drugs the baby to make it sleep. The physician who refuses to tell the board of health when smallpox or typhoid fever first breaks out takes human life just as truly as if he tore up the tracks in front of an express train. This is another way of saying that parents and teachers must fit themselves to know whether the family physician and their community's physicians are efficient practitioners and teachers. Every one can learn enough about the preventable causes of sickness and depleted vitality to insist upon the ounce of education and prevention that is better than a pound of cure.
For its sins of omission, as for its sins of commission, the medical profession shares responsibility with laymen. For years leading educators, business men, hospital directors, public officials, have known that communicable diseases could be stamped out. The methods have been demonstrated. There is absolutely no excuse to-day for epidemics of typhoid in Trenton, Pittsburg, or Scranton, for epidemics of scarlet fever in the small towns of Minnesota, for uninterrupted epidemics of tuberculosis everywhere. Had either laymen, physicians, or school-teachers made proper use of the knowledge that has been in text-books for a generation, this country would be saving thousands of lives and millions of dollars every year. Our doing and getting done have lagged behind our knowing.
The failure of physicians to "socialize" or "humanize" their knowledge is due to two causes: (1) no one has been applying result tests to the profession as a whole and to the state in its capacity as doctor, testing carefully the sickness rate, the death rate, and the expense rate of preventable diseases; (2) physicians themselves have not needed to know, either at college or in practice, the tax levied upon their communities by preventable sickness. Public schools can do much to secure result tests for individual physicians, for the profession as a whole, and for boards of health. Schooling in preventive medicine, or, better named, schooling in preventive hygiene, will fit physicians to do their part in eradicating preventable disease.
Preventive hygiene is not an essential part of the training of American physicians or nurses to-day. Not only are there no colleges of preventive hygiene, but medical schools have not provided individual courses. It is possible for a man to graduate with honors from our leading medical colleges without knowing what "vital statistics" means. Even boards of health, their duties and their educational opportunities, are not understood by graduates; it is an accident if the "social and economic aspects of medical practice," "statistical fallacies," "hospital administration," "infant mortality," are familiar terms. It is for this reason, rather than because physicians are selfish, that indispensable and beneficent legislation is so generally opposed by them when the prerogatives of their profession seem in danger. Practically every important sanitary advance of the past century has been fought at the outset by those whose life work should have made them see the need. Physicians bitterly attacked compulsory vaccination, medical inspection of schools, compulsory notification of communicable diseases. What is perhaps more significant of the physician's indifference to preventive hygiene is the fact that most of the sanitary movements that have revolutionized hygienic conditions in America owe their inception and their success to laymen, for example, tenement-house reform, anti-child labor and anti-tuberculosis crusades, welfare work in factories, campaigns for safety appliances, movement for a national board of health, prison, almshouse, and insane-asylum reform, schools for mothers, and milk committees. The first hospital for infectious diseases, the first board of health, the first out-of-door sea-air treatment of bone tuberculosis in the United States, were the result of lay initiative.