Fifty years ago this month, at the 1968 meeting of the American Medical Association, a fourth-year medical student named Peter Schnall seized the microphone and scolded several hundred of the most prestigious, highly educated white men in America.
“Organized medicine has never felt responsible and accountable to the American people for its actions and continues to deny them any significant voice in determining the nature of services offered to them,” Schnall chastised the group.
“Shut up!” yelled the doctors, who were accustomed to being treated with respect and deference, not with outrage and indignation.
Schnall’s outburst, coordinated by members of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign and the Medical Committee for Human Rights, aimed to be a wake-up call to an institution that was highly successful at protecting physicians’ “interests against encroachment” but failed to meet the public health and human needs of patients by opposing both civil rights and the expansion of safety-net health programs.
At a time when Jim Crow racism harmed the health of millions of African-Americans in the South, the AMA repeatedly rebuffed requests from the National Medical Association, an organization that represents African-American physicians, to work together to end racial health disparities.
Today, in the midst of a revived Poor People’s Campaign, physicians and medical students are again pressuring the AMA to be more responsive to the needs of the nation’s uninsured and underinsured. At the AMA’s House of Delegates annual meeting in Chicago this weekend, its Medical Student Section will ask the AMA to end its decades-long opposition to a single-payer health insurance program, a system better known as Medicare for All that would be publicly financed but privately delivered.
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