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People’s Medical Society

© Tom Ferguson MD

When I first heard about the People's Medical Society (PMS), I didn't know what to think. I'd long felt that a national organization of health consumers was badly needed. Now here was an attempt at one.

The confusing thing was that it was being organized and funded by Robert Rodale. I'd never met Rodale and knew him only as the editor of Prevention magazine and chairman of Rodale Press. I couldn't help wondering: Was the PMS for real or was it just a Rodale ego trip or a brainchild of the Rodale Press public relations office? I decided to find out.

A little research revealed that the People's Medical Society is a Pennsylvania nonprofit organization with an eight-member board of directors. That didn't tell me much. There are nonprofits and nonprofits. If the PMS were a Rodale Press P.R. vehicle, you'd expect the board to be composed of Rodale's close cronies. This was not the case. One would be hard-pressed to come up with a more distinguished and qualified board:

  • Lowell Lenin is a professor at the Yale School of Public Health, an internationally recognized expert on self-care, and one of my mentors. He was one of my teachers at Yale Medical School and has remained a friend (and an advisory editor of MSC) since my med-student days. I can tell you with some authority that he is definitely not someone you'd want to have on a board you intended to be a rubber stamp.
  • Patty Phelan is director of San Francisco's Planetree Health Resource Center, and one of the country's leading experts on helping laypeople find accurate medical information. She's a friend as well. MSC donates all its unneeded review copies to Planetree's consumer health library.
  • Lori Andrews is a lawyer, a researcher for the American Bar Foundation, and the country's leading expert on the legal aspects of self-care. She and I were fellow graduate students at Yale. She worked her way through law school doing freelance newspaper writing. When the first issue of Medical Self-Care came out, back in June, 1976, she was the first journalist to notice, and wrote an enthusiastic and thoughtful story for the New Haven newspaper.

So far, the PMS felt like old home week.

I'd heard of, but never met, the remaining board members: John McKnight, a professor at Northwestern University, a highly esteemed theorist of lay empowerment and a community organizer who specializes in health issues; Harrison Wellford, a distinguished Washington lawyer who specializes in environmental protection; John Fiorello, a health care consultant; R. Barker Russell of the University of Maryland School of Nursing; Belita Cowan, a founder of the National Women's Health Network; Mark Briklin, the sole Rodale employee, managing editor of Prevention; and Robert Rodale himself. I was intrigued enough to fly to Pennsylvania, interview Rodale and meet the society's executive director, Charles Inlander.

The interview in this issue should make it clear that I found Bob Rodale a self-effacing, refreshingly public-spirited health populist and visionary. I asked him how he came up with the idea for the People's Medical Society.

"At first I found myself thinking of just the name, 'The People's Medical Society, " he explained. "I thought—gee, the doctors have their society, the hospitals and the drug companies have their associations, drug and insurance companies share goals and information, but people go to doctors and hospitals one by one. Wouldn't it be great if consumers had their own organization?"

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About The Author
Tom Ferguson, M.D. (1943-2006), was a pioneering physician, author, and researcher who virtually led the movement to advocate informed self-care as the starting point for good health. Dr. Ferguson studied and wrote about the empowered medical consumer since 1975 and about online health resources for consumers since 1987. He founded the influential journal Medical Self-Care and the......more
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