Policing the Professions

May 26, 1989

Report Outline
Special Focus


When doctors or lawyers do something wrong, their state medical boards or state bar associations are supposed to discipline them. But even those who are guilty of serious misconduct or negligence often get off with only a slap on the wrist—or no punishment at all. Critics say the current system of self-policing, which has characterized the medical and legal professions since the late 19th century, does not protect consumers from incompetent or unscrupulous professionals and should be abolished.

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Consumers' attitudes toward the “learned professions” of law and medicine have traditionally been a mix of trust and suspicion: Because we trust doctors and lawyers with our lives and our fortunes, we believe they must be ethically superior. But because it is difficult for the public to judge their competence, we are unable to hold them as accountable for their actions as ordinary merchants.

This double-edged view permeates the debate over who should regulate the professions. Many doctors and lawyers support the current system, which gives professionals the responsibility of policing themselves. They contend that only their peers have the specialized knowledge needed to judge their conduct and performance and to protect the public from incompetence and negligence.

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Legal Professions and Resources
Medical Profession and Personnel