Professionalism, Communities of Practice, and Medicine’s Social Contract

Richard L Cruess, Sylvia R Cruess
Submitted: November, 2020

While medicine’s roots lie deep in antiquity, the modern professions only arose in the middle of the 19th century after which early social scientists examined the nature of professionalism. The relationship between medicine and society received less attention until profound changes occurred in the structure and financing of health care, leading to a perception that medicine’s professionalism was being threatened. Starr in 1984 proposed that the relationship was contractual with expectations and obligations on both sides. Other observers refined the concept, believing that the historic term, “social contract,” could be applied to the relationship, a concept with which many agree. There was general agreement that society used the concept of the profession to organize the delivery of essential services that it required, including health care. Under the terms of the contract, the medical profession was given financial and nonfinancial rewards, autonomy, and the privilege of self regulation on the understanding that it would be trustworthy, assure the competence of its members, and be devoted to the public good. In examining how the social contract is negotiated, it has been proposed that physicians belong to a “community of practice” that they voluntarily join during their education and training. It has been the intent of this article to address the issues raised by Freidson40 by attempting to “spell out” some of these principles, making them explicit to provide a framework for the ongoing discourse between medicine and society.

  • Professionalism
  • Medicine's Social Contract
  • Communities of Practice