While exerting control over the representation of certain groups within medicine as we previously considered is powerful the true value of audiovisual technology to the AMA is revealed only when considering their deftness at taking the pulse of mid-century America. The ability to present cardiothoracic surgery on the screen to a society living little over a decade after penicillin became commercially available and a decade before the first successful heart transplants, sends an undeniable message regarding the advanced state of American medicine. Almost as striking is the usage of NASA training videos portending the doctor’s role in allowing humanity to explore and conquer the stars. Arguably the most powerful image of all is the demonstration of radiation therapy for cancer. By juxtaposing a simple therapeutic machine with images of the mushroom cloud the AMA reveals to the world that the destructive power that cold war America so feared is in doctors’ hands not only controllable but can be used to save rather than take lives. The psychological power and prestige embodied in this message should not be underestimated. Through their selection of images, medicine’s and consequentially the AMA’s power over the fates of individuals and societies is subtlety but undeniably present.
At the same time, it portrays an allopathic medical establishment at the height of its prestige “I am a Doctor” also offers a window into a world very much in a state of transition. Dr. Judd, the inspiration for the series, is a general practitioner in the traditional model. He delivers babies, treats the illness of children, and diagnoses himself with the oncological malady that ultimately killed him. In contrast, the video portrays medicine as a field rooted in 23 official specialties grounded in a foundation of clinical research. Unlike Dr. Judd, the future medical student must find the specialty that most appeals to them, the enemy they most hate, and commit to a lifelong struggle against it. Today this has expanded into a diverse system of over 120 subspecialties each addressing a small facet of the colossus of medical care. Another significant shift hinted at in the video series is the wedding of the laboratory bench to clinical bedside. This bond has only grown tighter over the succeeding decades as health systems increasingly emphasize the use of data to measure quality and guide a standardized approach to clinical care and advocate the data-rich integration of research and practice.
“I am a Doctor” provides a window into the moment the modern medical system was born. The MCAT developed in 1946 was just coming into prominence as a definitive aspect of the medical professionals training, the hard-won curricular victories of the early 20th century were firmly in place, and advances in medical technology allowed for the emergence of the varied specialties that now define the field. At the same time the film is also very much a relic of its era. Women now outnumber men at many medical schools. Additionally, while still arguably underrepresented and despite some unfortunate backsliding minority physicians are now given their well-deserved place within the system. Perhaps the greatest shift however is with respect to the AMA. The American Medical Association, though still respected is no longer viewed by many as a genuine national physician association. Of America’s roughly 950,000 MDs, only about 228,000 called themselves AMA members in 2009 — and of these almost half are students, residents, or retirees, whose dues are deeply discounted. Long gone are the days when the AMA spoke as the definitive voice of the medical community and could lay an unchallenged claim to the phrase “I am a Doctor” nor the image of those who can declare it.