Intended for healthcare professionals


Handing on the gong

BMJ 2005; 331 doi: (Published 03 November 2005) Cite this as: BMJ 2005;331:1091
  1. James Owen Drife, professor of obstetrics and gynaecology
  1. Leeds

    Tonight there will be a little ceremony at our local medical society. As outgoing president I am required to unfasten my medal of office (a test of dexterity, as the catch tends to creep up under the back of the collar) and hang it round the neck of my successor. What he does with it then is up to him.

    Doctors generally have little time for ceremonial or insignias. Most of us happily wore academic dress at graduation but otherwise pomp seems masonic and unnecessary. I rather like it, though. At the annual dinner of a medical royal college, for example, it is fun to ask visiting presidents to explain their traditional regalia. In some cases the tradition goes back all of 20 years.

    Doctors also have little time for local medical societies. This is a pity. Medical networking nowadays is limited almost exclusively to people in your own specialty. Each of us relates more to the internet than to colleagues down the road or even down the corridor.

    Most medical societies began in the 19th century, initially to discuss difficult cases. Then they began inviting out-of-town lecturers. Recently, as continuing professional development has moved into normal working hours, they have struggled to attract audiences. We tried subjects like genetically modified plants or medical aspects of medieval stained glass. They are fascinating but don't pull in the registrars.

    Big names from outside medicine are prohibitively expensive, but distinguished medics are still willing, for expenses only, to fit journeys into fraught schedules and deliver talks that are often works of art. They know they will be addressing a tiny proportion of the local doctors, but that doesn't put them off, thank goodness.

    Why bother continuing? Because it is enriching to feel that you are part of a learned profession rather than switching only between specialty silo and non-medical mode. Your colleagues become human beings, not names on a letterhead. And the meeting with the student presentations is truly inspirational.

    For me, the scariest responsibility has been looking after the silk-lined box with the 19th century presidential medal. Inside the lid is a rather sentimental oath of office. My successor, a forward-thinking GP, may baulk at that. I'll find out tonight.

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