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The robustness of medical professional ethics when times are changing: a comparative study of general practitioner ethics and surgery ethics in The Netherlands


Society in the 21st century is in many ways different from society in the 1950s, the 1960s or the 1970s. Two of the most important changes relate to the level of education in the population and the balance between work and private life. These days a large percentage of people are highly educated. Partly as a result of economic progress in the 1950s and the 1960s and partly due to the fact that many women entered the labour force, people started searching for ways to combine their career with family obligations and a private life (including hobbies, outings and holidays). Medical professional ethics, more specifically: professional attitudes towards patients and colleagues, is influenced by developments such as these, but how much and in what way? It was assumed that surgery ethics would be more robust, resistant to change and that general practitioner (GP) ethics would change more readily in response to a changing society, because surgeons perform technical work in operating theatres in hospitals whereas GPs have their offices in the midst of society. The journals of Dutch surgeons and GPs from the 1950s onwards were studied so as to detect traces of change in medical professional ethics in The Netherlands. GP ethics turned out to be malleable compared with surgery ethics. In fact, GP medicine proved to be an agent of change rather than merely responding to it, both with regard to the changing role of patients and with regard to the changing work life balance.

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