The Social Mission of Medical Education: Dr. Fitzhugh Mullan, Yale School of Medicine Commencement

  • Fitzhugh Mullan


To start this year’s commencement archive, we have Dr. Fitzhugh Mullan’s 2018 commencement speech at Yale School of Medicine titled “The Social Mission of Medical Educationâ€.

In his address to the graduating class, Dr. Mullan tells a story about his experiences as a medical civil rights worker in the mid 1960’s right after his first year of medical school. He lived with the locals to help sort out local health problems and promote civil rights work by going door-to-door to encourage people to register to vote and sign their kids up to attend the white school that was going to be integrated for the upcoming year. His experiences along with the Civil Rights Movement sweeping the nation inspired him to become a Civil Rights doctor, a doctor for those who were underrepresented. He went back to the University of Chicago for medical school and helped organize student clubs and events focused on Civil Rights. The work of his peers and him was both on a local and national scale.

Dr. Mullan then asks the students of the graduating class to think about why they chose medicine as a career. In his works “Medicine, we know, will guarantee us a good living. But, for many of us, the selection of medicine goes way beyond that. Idealism draws many of us into medicine – the opportunity of helping others, alleviating pain, extending life, and perhaps contributing new knowledge to the healing arts. For others there is something more - a sense of what I will call social mission that is more than the desire to heal. Social mission recognizes that there are inequities in the world and, more to the point, in access to health and health care. In ways articulate and inarticulate, many young men and women entering medicine hope to help in this regard. They hope to make the world not only a better place, but

also a fairer place. This is social mission.â€

Dr. Mullan details the need for medical schools to have social missions in order to shape the doctors of the future. Dr. Mullan exclaims that “We need doctors who understand these problems and are committed to fixing them. The call for social mission is by no means limited to primary care or for those who see themselves as activists. We need physicians of all specialties to work in rural areas and to treat poor and low-income populations. We need physician research scientists and policy leaders equipped to tackle these equity problemsâ€.

Dr. Mullan concludes with a statement that the whole medical system – medical schools and teaching hospitals – needs to be rebuilt to not only be better but fairer.

Author Biography

Fitzhugh Mullan

Dr. Fitzhugh Mullan is Professor of Health Policy at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington and Professor of Pediatrics at the George Washington University School of Medicine. He served 23 years in the United States Public Health Service, starting as a physician in the National Health Service Corps and later as director of the program. He subsequently, directed the Bureau of Health Professions, and attained the rank of Assistant Surgeon General. In 1996, he retired from the Public Health Service and joined the staff of the journal Health Affairs as a Contributing Editor and the Founding Editor of the Narrative Matters section. He joined the faculty at George Washington University on a part time basis in 1997 and full time in 2005. In recent years, his research and policy work have focused on US and international health workforce issues, especially equity in health professions education.