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The Flexner Report is a book-length study of medical education in the United Statesmarker and Canadamarker, written by the professional educator Abraham Flexner and published in 1910 under the aegis of the Carnegie Foundation. Many aspects of the present-day American medical profession stem from the Flexner Report and its aftermath.

The Report (also called Carnegie Foundation Bulletin Number Four) called on American medical schools to enact higher admission and graduation standards, and to adhere strictly to the protocols of mainstream science in their teaching and research. Many American medical schools fell short of the standard advocated in the Report, and subsequent to its publication, nearly half of such schools merged or were closed outright. The Report also concluded that there were too many medical schools in the USA, and that too many doctors were being trained. A repercussion of the Flexner Report resulting from the closure or consolidation of university training, was reversion of American universities to male-only admittance programs to accommodate a smaller admission pool. Universities had begun opening and expanding female admissions as part of women's and co-educational facilities only in the mid-to-latter part of the 19th century with the founding of co-educational Oberlin Collegemarker in 1833 and private colleges such as Vassar Collegemarker and Pembroke College.


In the late 19th century, what came to be called modern medicine emerged after a struggle with other forms of medicine such as homeopathy. This new medicine was grounded in antiseptic surgery, the germ theory of infectious disease (which informed a large number of effective public health measures), and the scientific method, including evidence-based medicine and clinical trials. In 1904 the AMA created the Council on Medical Education (CME) whose objective was to restructure American medical education. At its first annual meeting, the CME adopted two standards: one laid down the minimum prior education required for admission to a medical school, the other defined a medical education as consisting of two years training in human anatomy and physiology followed by two years of clinical work in a teaching hospital. In 1908, the CME asked the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching to survey American medical education, so as to promote the CME's reformist agenda and hasten the elimination of medical schools that failed to meet the CME's standards. The president of the Carnegie Foundation, Henry Pritchett, a staunch advocate of medical school reform, chose Flexner to conduct the survey.

At that time, the 155 medical schools in North America differed greatly in their curricula, methods of assessment, and requirements for admission and graduation. Flexner visited all 155 schools and generalized about them as follows: "Each day students were subjected to interminable lectures and recitations. After a long morning of dissection or a series of quiz sections, they might sit wearily in the afternoon through three or four or even five lectures delivered in methodical fashion by part-time teachers. Evenings were given over to reading and preparation for recitations. If fortunate enough to gain entrance to a hospital, they observed more than participated." The Report became notorious for its harsh description of certain establishments, for example describing Chicago's 14 medical schools as "a disgrace to the State whose laws permit its existence... indescribably foul... the plague spot of the nation."

Nevertheless, several schools received praise for excellent performance, including Harvardmarker, Western Reservemarker, McGillmarker, University of Torontomarker, and especially Johns Hopkins - the latter was described as 'model for medical education'.

Recommended changes

When Flexner researched his report, many American medical schools were "proprietary", namely small trade schools owned by one or more doctors, unaffiliated with a college or university, and run to make a profit. A degree was typically awarded after only two years of study. Laboratory work and dissection were not necessarily required. Many of the instructors were local doctors teaching part-time, whose own training left something to be desired. The regulation of the medical profession by state government was minimal or nonexistent. American doctors varied enormously in their scientific understanding of human physiology, and the word "quack" flourished. There is no evidence that the mass of Americans were dissatisfied with this situation.

Flexner looked this situation in the face. Using the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine as the ideal, he boldly recommended that:
  • Admission to a medical school should require, at minimum, a high school diploma and at least two years of college or university study, primarily devoted to basic science. When Flexner researched his report, only 16 out of 155 medical schools in the United States and Canada required applicants to have completed two or more years of university education (p 28). According to Hiatt and Stockton, by 1920 92% of U.S. medical schools required this of applicants.
  • The length of medical education be four years, and its content should be what the CME agreed to in 1905.
  • Proprietary medical schools should either close or be incorporated into existing universities. Medical schools should be part of a larger university, because a proper stand-alone medical school would have to charge too much in order to break even.

Less known is Flexner's recommendation that medical schools appoint full-time clinical professors. Holders of these appointments would become "true university teachers, barred from all but charity practice, in the interest of teaching." Flexner pursued this objective for years, despite widespread opposition from existing medical faculty.

Flexner was the child of German immigrants, and had studied and traveled in Europe. He was well aware that one could not practice medicine in continental Europe without having undergone an extensive specialized university education. In effect, Flexner was demanding that American medical education conform to prevailing practice in continental Europe.

By and large, medical schools in Canada and the United States have followed Flexner's recommendations down to the present day. Recently, however, schools have increased their emphasis on public health matters.

Consequences of the report

To a remarkable extent, the following present-day aspects of the medical profession in North America are consequences of the Flexner Report:
  • A physician receives at least six, and preferably eight, years of post-secondary formal instruction, nearly always in a university setting;
  • Medical training adheres closely to the scientific method and is thoroughly grounded in human physiology and biochemistry. Medical research adheres fully to the protocols of scientific research;
  • Average physician quality has increased significantly;
  • No medical school can be created without the permission of the state government. Likewise, the size of existing medical schools is subject to state regulation;
  • Each state branch of the American Medical Association has oversight over the conventional medical schools located within the state;
  • Medicine in the USA and Canada becomes a highly paid and well-respected profession;
  • The annual number of medical school graduates sharply declined, and the resulting reduction in the supply of doctors makes the availability and affordability of medical care problematic. The Report led to the closure of the sort of medical schools that trained doctors willing to charge their patients less. Moreover, before the Report, high quality doctors varied their fees according to what they believed their patients could afford, a practice known as price discrimination. The extent of price discrimination in American medicine declined in the aftermath of the Report;
  • Kessel (1958) argued that the Flexner Report in effect began the cartelization of the American medical profession, a cartelization enforced by the American Medical Association and backed by the police power of each American state. This de facto cartel restricted the supply of physicians, and raised the incomes of the remaining practitioners.

The Report is now remembered because it succeeded in creating a single model of medical education, characterized by a philosophy that has largely survived to the present day. "An education in medicine," wrote Flexner, "involves both learning and learning how; the student cannot effectively know, unless he knows how." Although the report is more than 90 years old, many of its recommendations are still relevant—particularly those concerning the physician as a "social instrument... whose function is fast becoming social and preventive, rather than individual and curative."

Closure of many medical schools

According to Hiatt and Stockton (p. 8), Flexner sought to shrink the number of medical schools in the USA to 31, and to cut the annual number of medical graduates from 4,400 to 2,000. A majority of American institutions granting M.D. or D.O. degrees as of the date of the Report (1910) closed within two to three decades. (No Canadian medical school was deemed inadequate, and none closed or merged subsequent to the Report.) In 1904, there were 160 M.D. granting institutions with more than 28,000 students. By 1920, there were only 85 M.D. granting institution, educating only 13,800 students. By 1935, there were only 66 medical schools operating in the USA.

Between 1910 and 1935, more than half of all American medical schools merged or closed. This dramatic decline was in some part due to the implementation of the Report's recommendation that all "proprietary" schools be closed, and that medical schools should henceforth all be connected to universities. Of the 66 surviving M.D. granting institutions in 1935, 57 were part of a university. An important factor driving the mergers and closures of medical schools was that all state medical boards gradually adopted and enforced the Report's recommendations.

American medicine becomes a less diverse profession

One of the consequences of Flexner's advocacy of university-based medical education was that medical education became much more expensive, putting such education out of reach of all but upper class white males. The small "proprietary" schools Flexner condemned, which were contended to be have been based in generations-old folk traditions rather than relatively recent western science, did admit African-Americans, women, and students of limited financial means. These students usually could not afford six to eight years of university education, and were often simply denied admission to medical schools affiliated with universities. At the same time, the Report tended to delegitimize existing women doctors and doctors of color. While many such doctors continued to practice, usually within underserviced clienteles, they did so under proscribed circumstances and for less pay. In general, the standardization of medical education advocated in the Report led to the domination of American medicine by well-off white males. It also made it more difficult for people of color, residents of rural areas, and for those of limited means generally to obtain medical care in any form. The Flexner report recommended the closure of several African American medical schools, including the Leonard Medical Center, the oldest four-year medical school in the country for African-Americans. Ironically one of the schools was located in his own hometown of Louisville, Kentuckymarker, Louisville National Medical College.

Impact on alternative medicine

When Flexner researched his report, "modern" medicine faced vigorous competition from several quarters, including osteopathic medicine, eclectic medicine, physiomedicalism, naturopathy and homeopathy. Flexner clearly doubted the scientific validity of all forms of medicine other than biomedicine, deeming any approach to medicine that did not advocate the use of treatments such as vaccines to prevent and cure illness as tantamount to quackery and charlatanism. Medical schools that offered training in various disciplines including eclectic medicine, physiomedicalism, naturopathy, and homeopathy, were told either to drop these courses from their curriculum or lose their accreditation and underwriting support. A few schools resisted for a time, but eventually all complied with the Report or shut their doors.

Impact on osteopathic medicine

Although almost all the alternative medical schools listed in Flexner's report were closed, the American Osteopathic Association (AOA) were able to bring a number of osteopathic medical schools into compliance with Flexner's recommendations. As a result, American osteopathic medical schools today teach from an evidence-based, medicalised, scientific knowledge base. The curricula of DO and MD awarding medical schools differ only minimally, the chief difference being the additional instruction in osteopathic schools of manipulative medicine. This dramatic convergence of osteopathic and biomedical training demonstrates the sweeping effect the Flexner report had, not only in the closure of inadequate schools, but also in the standardization of the curricula of surviving schools.

See also


  1. Raffel MN, Raffel NK. The US Health System: origins and functions. 4th ed. Albany, NY: Delmar Publishers; 1994:11.
  2. UNMC's Flexner's Impact on American Medicine

Further reading


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