Intended for healthcare professionals

Education And Debate

The World Medical Association: can hope triumph over experience?

BMJ 1994; 308 doi: (Published 22 January 1994) Cite this as: BMJ 1994;308:262
  1. T Richards
  1. British Medical Journal, London WC1H 9JR.

    The World Medical Association was set up in 1947 in the wake of outrage about war crimes committed by doctors in Hitler's Germany. For nearly 50 years it has lurched from one controversy to another, arguing within itself about its funding, its voting system, and the representativeness and political affiliation of some of its member medical associations. The BMA withdrew from the association in 1984, supporting a breakaway Toronto group including Canada, the Scandinavian countries, the Netherlands, Ireland, and Jamaica. All but Britain and Jamaica have now rejoined and membership is growing, but the association is still struggling to gain credibility and clout. After 20 years of part time stewardship the recent appointment of a new full time secretary general has fuelled expectations that internal reforms will be implemented, and the WMA's standing and profile improved.

    The World Medical Association is at a crossroads. To its credit it has a string of worthy statements and declarations. The key ones, such as the 1948 Declaration of Geneva (a modern restatement of the Hippocratic oath), the 1964 Declaration of Helsinki on research on human subjects, and the 1975 Declaration of Tokyo on torture and other inhuman and degrading treatment of prisoners, are widely known and respected throughout the world, if not always adhered to. The association has also run international conferences on medical education and collaborated modestly with the World Health Organisation.

    On the debit side, the association has never succeeded in being the influential international body it has aspired to be. Indeed it has never even succeeded in being a truly world organisation. Membership reached a peak of over 60 in 1971 and a low of 35 in 1985; it is now running at 59. Its periodic statements have usually been reactive and poorly publicised. Internal divisions, mass resignations, the formation …

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