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Gods no longer? Some thoughts about the status of health professionals in the 21st century
  1. Susan Quilliam
  1. Freelance Writer, Broadcaster and Agony Aunt, Cambridge, UK
  1. Correspondence to Susan Quilliam; susan{at}

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It is not so long ago – and certainly within the living memory of many Journal readers – that health professionals were gods. To be slightly more precise when it comes to definitions of the spheres of Heaven, nurses were ministering angels, the general practitioner (GP) was a benign and infallible minor deity, while the consultant – particularly in life-or-death specialties such as childbirth or oncology – was Jupiter Himself. One may note the gender of the reflexive pronoun.

Times have changed in medicine as well as in religion. Nowadays if we have not quite reached the Age of Reason, we are certainly living in an age of reasonable doubt. Society now rarely affords health professionals the same quasi-divine status; where there was faith now there are benchmarks and targets, where there was utter trust now there are tabloid headlines, public enquiries and questions in the House.

Is the Internet to blame?

The cause? Many would claim that one key factor is the Internet, leading to patients entering the consulting room armed with multiple printouts by means of which they not only self-diagnose their condition but also demand specific and instant responses to their medication prayers. (This approach at best irritates and at worst blocks sensible diagnosis and treatment.) Albeit that I am a huge fan of the World Wide Web, I agree that it is partly responsible for the current trend of what one might term ‘medical agnosticism’. Universal information, like universal education, is largely wonderful, but it can not only undermine public belief in formal religion but also fuel a tendency to general scepticism.

That said, I do think that the factors behind any current loss of faith in the health profession are more subtle and complex than Google and Wikipedia. In Britain perhaps one trigger occurred 60 years ago at the birth …

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  • Competing interests None.

  • Provenance and peer review Commissioned; internally peer reviewed.