The first half of the 20th century was a period in which the American medical profession saw great gains. As the profession gained control over medical education and as governmental and philanthropic entities made large investments in medical research and hospitals, both the training of individual physicians and the material and research foundations for medical practice rapidly improved. Public respect for the authority of physicians reached new highs as their “consulting status” with the public – the public’s willingness to seek out and pay for medical care – solidified. By the late 1970s, however, social scientists declared that there was a growing “healthcare crisis,” reflected in falling public opinion of the medical profession. Some of these data are presented in the table below.
Table 1. Attitudes towards physicians: Item Distributions (%), 1976 access to medical care in the US by AMCUS, N = 3,775, and 1998 General Social Survey, N = 1,387. A = strongly agree & agree combined; D = strongly disagree & disagree combined; U = uncertain. All between 1976 and 1998 were statistically significant, p < 0.05.
|Statement||1976 AMCUS||1998 GSS|
|1. Doctors aren’t as thorough as they should be.||38.9||39.1||21.9||51.3||33.7||14.0|
|2. Sometimes doctors take unnecessary risks in treating patients.||21.6||35.9||42.5||34.5||40.4||25.1|
|3. Doctors always do their best to keep their patients from worrying.||60.4||15.9||23.7||52.0||28.1||20.0|
|4. Doctors are very careful to check everything when examining their patients.||37.2||36.9||25.9||34.2||45.1||20.7|
Researchers interested in learning more about this phenomenon and its evolution analyzed data using items that were employed in surveys conducted with nationally representative samples randomly selected at two points in time, 1976 and 1998. Data from four of these items are shown in Table 1. In further analyses, the researchers found that “negative attitudes” (agreement with negative statements, such as items 1 and 2 in Table 1), had a significant negative correlation with a number of respondents’ demographic traits in 1976: being white, age, income, and education. Over this entire period, surveys suggested that overall confidence in “the people who control” medical and scientific institutions was very high. Moreover, demographics explained only a small amount of variation of all responses.
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