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The term socialist medicine applies to a health care delivery system designed to provide preventive, diagnostic, clinical, rehabilitative, educational, and custodial services to a designated population free of charge at the time of the service. The prototype of socialist medicine is also known as Soviet socialized medicine.
At a time when health care is being recognized as a basic human right, Soviet socialist medicine has often been cited as a model for the universal provision of health care. The nature and structure of Soviet socialist medicine reflected the ideological and political orientation of the Soviet regime. There were two major ideas underlying the health care system of the former Soviet Union. One was that illness and premature mortality were primarily the product of a flawed system (capitalism) and its exploitation of the working class. This exploitation exposed workers to a series of pathogenic elements that affected their health and well-being: poor pay, child labor, long working hours, miserable housing conditions, inadequate nutrition, and a noxious social environment (Engels 1958: The Condition of the Working Class in England). Thus, capitalism was indicted as the major etiological factor in illness and early death. Only socialism (and eventually communism) would eliminate the sources of most socially caused ill health.
The second idea was that the provision of health care under capitalism meant that workers were, in most instances, deprived of access to such care because they could not afford it. The removal of that payment by the patient meant the elimination of the barrier to health care. Under socialist medicine, it was society (i.e., the polity) that would henceforth shoulder the responsibility for the provision of health services to the entire population. The Soviet Union was the first country in the world to promise universal and free health services as a constitutional right (Sigerist 1937: Socialized Medicine in the Soviet Union; 1947: Medicine and Health in the Soviet Union). This would also permit physicians to stop being engaged in a commercial” transaction and enable them to treat patients without being fettered with questions of money. By the same token, hospital and other health institutions would also offer free services at the expense of the state. The promise of gratuitous and universal (though not necessarily equal) medical care to the entire nation was one of the few redeeming factors of an otherwise bleak totalitarian regime. It was often held as an example to emulate worldwide, and served as important propaganda for use at home and abroad.
- Field, M. G. (1967) Soviet Socialized Medicine: An Introduction. Free Press, New York.