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?
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