In 1987, Ontario's physicians conducted a strike, ultimately not successful, over the issue of "extra billing." The fact that the Ontario public did not support this action reflected a major gap between the profession's view of itself and the public's view of the profession. In 1990, the province's five medical schools launched a collaborative project to determine more specifically what the people of Ontario expect of their physicians, and how the programs that prepare future physicians should be changed in response. The authors report on the first five years of that ongoing project. Consumer groups were asked to state their views concerning the current roles of physicians, future trends that would affect these roles, changes in roles they wished to see, and suggestions for changes in medical education. Methods used included focus groups, key informant interviews, an extensive literature review, and surveys, including a survey of health professionals. Concurrently, inter-university working groups prepared tools and strategies for strengthening faculty development, assessing student performance, and preparing future leadership for Ontario's medical education system. Eight specific physician roles were identified: medical expert, communicator, collaborator, health advocate, learner, manager ("gatekeeper"), scholar, and "physician as person." Educational strategies to help medical students learn to assume these eight roles were then incorporated into the curricula of the five participating medical schools. The authors conclude that the project shows that it is feasible to learn specifically what society expects of its physicians, to integrate this knowledge into the process of medical education reform, and to implement major curriculum changes through a collaborative, multi-institutional consortium within a single geopolitical jurisdiction.