Doctors not protesting

I was slightly dissapointed when 7/8 of my first year medical students showed up for their last day of teaching at my practice on thursday December 9th. The eighth student was ill, so not one of them was protesting. When I asked them why not they said that in their first week as medical students they were told not to get involved in any protests because even a police caution would mean they might be thrown off the course and almost certainly they wouldn’t get a job. Images of Fascist Spain or Nazi Germany came immediately to mind (I have just read Alone in Berlin: “…everyone ought to be interested in politics. If we all had been, then maybe the Nazis wouldn’t have got their hands on power.”

Protesting doctors do exist. I asked 3 of my GP partners if they ever protested. They are between 50 and 60 years old and all of them spent considerable time as students and junior doctors marching and protesting on a whole range of issues. Dr Jane Grubb is in her 80s and has spent her life as a peace protestor and campaigner. Professor Wendy Savage (in her 70s) still campaigns for womens’s rights to control their own fertility and have access to abortions as well as chairing the Keep Our NHS Public campaign. Professor Harry Keen CBE a highly distinguished endocrinologist is a founder member of the NHS support federation. Dr Jacky Davis has been speaking at public events about the cuts and the threats to the NHS for the last couple of years.

I spent lots of time as a medical student on marches and protests about road building. It never occured to me that it might jeopardise my future career. I marched around Aldermaston marking the 50th anniversary of the first Aldermaston CND march with an enormous anarchist flag in 2008 without the slightest concern about what the BMA might think.

Organisations like MEDACT which campaigns for global public health are full of protesting doctors as the pictures on their website show. Doctors who volunteer with organisations like Medcins sans Frontieres/Doctors without Borders, and Merlin are involved with political protest and campaigning well beyond the emergency provision of medical care. One of the most common concerns medical students have when I talk about my experience working as a volunteer in Afghanistan and Nepal is that their career will be ruined by taking time out to do what I did.

The philosopher Hannah Arendt is best known for alerting us to the danger that evil is banal, rather than being something that only the pathologically derranged are capable of, it’s possible simply because people ignore the bigger picture and concentrate on their own lives and careers

“…careerism, as Arendt noted in her book on Eichmann, is seldom conducive to thinking.” Corey Robin, Dragon Slayers London Review of Books

We shouldn’t forget the words of another doctor, Rudolf Virkow,

“Medicine is a social science and politics is nothing more than medicine on a large scale”

We cannot allow our medical students to be intimidated and forcibly depoliticised at such an early stage in their career. A modern tick-box medical education seems to be about narrowing young minds rather than broadening them and its rare to find a student who actually reads for the purpose of expanding their intellectual horizons rather than getting through their exams.

What good can it possibly be to society if its doctors are so removed from the concerns of their patients, the needs of society or the history of freedom?

Fabulous essay from 1968: Why do I demonstrate?

Please send stories of more inspirational doctors to

6 responses to “Doctors not protesting

  1. I wouldn’t claim to be inspirational Jonathon but I believe that we medics have a responsibility to pay back the debt we owe society for giving us our job satisfaction, status, wealth and privilege. I also believe that medicine imposes a moral obligation to be egalitarian in every sense: socialist, feminist, anti-racist and pacifist for example. It also imposes a moral obligation to advocate / speak out on behalf of those less able to do so by virtue of their health or their social positioon.

    I’ve been protesting since the early 1960s and have just returned from today’s anti-cuts demo in Liverpool. Alex Scott-Samuel

    I also think that we have a moral duty to protest because we have privilaged access to the most vulnerable people in society (see previous post, ‘The duties of doctors and the suffering of patients’) and so know more about how they’re affected than most people.

  2. Pingback: Why should a postman pay for your university education? Why does free education end at 18?

  3. I feel your comments might be a tiny bit disproproportionate at the moment. In the day job, I have the task of deciding what action to initiate against a student who (say) received a police caution at a demonstration. I think it most unlikely that I or any of my equivalent colleagues would initiate significant disciplinary action in such a case. So, why did you get this response from your students? Well, for one thing, you were “disappointed” to see them there. You are their educational supervisor. Perhaps they were unwilling to disappoint you, or embarassed in their own inertia, or even afraid you might mark them down….
    Or perhaps, they were part of the rumour mill/Chinese whispers that medical students seem particularly prone to. Were they told that even police cautions would show up in enhanced CRB forms? This is true (the enhanced form was a fallible attempt to protect the vulnerable) but most medical school gonks like me try to take a proportionate view.
    Or perhaps they were just young people who have become less political over the years? When I was a student, I went on marches a lot too. Eveyone did, for causes that we believed in sincerely. But Thatcher and the 80s seemed to dishearten everyone. Everyone became a little more career focussed, a little more selfish, a little less prepared to act for the less fortunate as ‘greed’ became ‘good’.
    But this is not like Fascist Spain or Nazi Germany, and that comment may not be quite respectful to those who suffered. Medical students are not being ‘forcibly depoliticised’. I’m probably quite like you in my attitudes and politics – I certainly enjoy your blog. And most of my colleagues in similar roles are, well, quite like you and I too, children of the 60s and 70s. There is no medical school Gestapo: it’s not even ‘them’ and ‘us’. It’s just ‘us’, trying to find our way through a challenging political climate as best we can.

  4. Thanks Morran,
    Unlike most other undergrads, medical students are at the begining of their career and tentatively, given the political climate, one within the NHS family with a personal history that extends all the way through. Starting now. So its true, they’re under different pressures. But I was a medical student, not so long ago and remember how few of my peers seemed to be concerned about politics beyond the union bar. The article was deliberately provocative and designed ruffle a few feathers. I intend it to lead on to another about inspirational doctors like David Widgery, Michael O’Donnell, Sam Smith, Julian Tudor Hart and any others you might like to suggest, with the aim sharing a little inspiration and courage.

  5. Sorry Morran, but that is how medical students feel. I went through the job application process for foundation last year and it was made quite clear to us that anything could show up. I went to the GMC/Kings Fund conference where it was made clear by the GMC representative that they didn’t care themselves about minor indiscretions but the system around them says different. Just ask any junior doctor with what most people would regard as a minor offence (eg. Possession of cannabis) and how difficult it can make their lives. I know exactly the feeling, when confronted with a portfolio that needs writing and a punishing set of specialist training program requirements, that makes people think its not worth the effort.

  6. Frankly, I am surprised and rather delighted that students have remembered how to protest. In the hayday of student protests, from CND to anti-apartheid, from Greenham common to the poll tax, though student groups were always active, medical students, as a whole, were not. In that respect, not much has changed.
    We now exist in a culture (in the NHS) where consultants do get the sack for speaking out, and where any job you do, you have to prove that you are worthy to do it by not having a caution or a record. So medics don’t, on the whole, protest.
    It may be because I am older, or because I am more reckless than most, that I still protest. The sad truth though, is that it is because I remember what the NHS stands for (or stood for) and if I cannot protest and get back some idealism, then I suppose it matters less if I piss enough people off that I can no longer work for the NHS. The majority of doctors do not feel this way and the “youngsters” do not remember the ideal.

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