Why should you belong to a medical professional society?

acp new logoA guest column by the American College of Physicians, exclusive to KevinMD.com.

Because I work for a medical specialty society, I’m frequently asked by non-members why I believe they should belong to a medical professional society.  This is a particularly relevant question these days given the rapidly changing landscape of medicine and with physicians becoming much more discerning about the value they perceive in such affiliations.

My response to this question, despite my obvious bias, is that I firmly believe that medical professional associations have been and continue to be critically important in positively affecting the lives and careers of individual physicians, the state of medicine at large, and the well-being of the patients we serve.  Here’s why.

Professional societies are predicated on the concept of individuals within a particular discipline coming together to share their knowledge, skills, and experience for their mutual benefit and advancement of the common good.  Medicine, however, is somewhat unique among professions given its ancient roots as a deeply moral enterprise focused on maintaining the interests of patients as central to what it does.  This difference, therefore, can translate into medical professional societies that represent a communal extension of the core principles underlying medicine as a discipline.  This means that they ideally have an obligation to seek to improve the care of the sick; advance public health by providing leadership in confronting issues affecting the well-being of the population at large; defend the health of the most vulnerable members of society; establish standards for medical care, individual practice, and ethical behavior; help advance medical knowledge and medical education; and provide mutual support for its members.   It also means that the interests of patients should supersede those of the self-interests of its members, even if doing so might conflict with economic, commercial, or political pressures being faced by the discipline.

By doing these things, medical professional societies have the potential to serve as a stabilizing force in a rapidly changing medical landscape by functioning as the “conscience” of the profession, as well as serving as a catalyst for positive changes in medicine as a whole, for those who practice it, and the patients and society it serves.

But an obvious (and legitimate) question is whether medical professional societies are actually able to uphold these lofty goals in today’s health care environment.   In reality, medical societies constantly struggle with the balance between maintaining the highest ideals of the profession and seeking to advance their members’ and discipline’s self-interests.  When this balance is not properly maintained, more self-serving agendas may overtake the ethical obligations of the profession, and history has shown many examples of medical professional associations straying significantly from these core principles and at times functioning more as businesses, trade associations or lobbies.  Yet, I believe that it is possible for medical professional societies to manage this potential conflict of interest and serve both its members and the patients for whom they care, and that most truly try to do so.

Beyond embodying the principles underlying the profession, medical societies also provide an avenue for expression of those things important to individual physicians through the collective voice of their discipline far beyond what they are able to do on their own.  It is the lack of communal and unified input and influence that has led to doctors losing control of the conversations around many of the key issues affecting medicine in recent years, with the structure of health care delivery and financing, and introduction and expansion of electronic health records being key examples. And even though no individual member of a society is likely to fully agree with every position, policy, or approach it might take around these issues, the ability of an association to speak on behalf of a discipline in the interests of patients, the profession, and society can be immensely powerful and meaningful for members, particularly for issues where their individual voices would undoubtedly be less influential.

But perhaps one of the most valuable roles a medical professional society can play is to provide a way for individual physicians to remain connected in a meaningful way with the core principles and values that led them to medicine in the first place and those who share them.   Being a physician can be a fairly solitary enterprise, and fostering ongoing relationships with like-minded colleagues can serve to counter the growing sense of isolation that physicians feel in the current health care environment.  This attachment with the greater house of medicine and the opportunity to engage with others facing similar professional and life challenges can help us defend against and manage feelings of loneliness by knowing that we truly aren’t alone.  And it is this inherent fellowship with our medical colleagues that may be the key to combating our feelings of loneliness, providing a sense of empowerment, and restoring joy in the work of doctoring.

And then there are the more tangible aspects of belonging to a medical professional association.  Virtually all provide significant opportunities for networking and establishing mentor/mentee relationships, educational content, meetings, as well as support resources across the career lifespan, and professional recognition through such mechanisms as fellowship or awards.

The reality is that many individual physicians I speak with have significant competing time and activity pressures, and therefore perceive their ability to meaningfully engage with a medical professional association to be limited, while others do not see value in interacting with societies beyond a more transactional basis related to specific programs, products, and services.  But I encourage them to look (or re-look) closely at what medical professional societies represent and can offer to help them in their lives and work as a physician.

We know that medical professional associations are not perfect.  We also know that those who do join them tend to do so for their own personal reasons, although every individual’s reasons may be different and the decision to remain affiliated will likely change over time.  But I’m a firm believer that we are always stronger personally and professionally when we work together, and that the benefits of being a part of something greater in medicine will never go away. And that is the value of belonging.

Philip A. Masters is vice-president, Membership and International Programs, American College of Physicians. His statements do not necessarily reflect official policies of ACP.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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