Context  An association with excellence should be reserved for educational institutions which verify that their actions make a difference to people’s well-being. The graduates they produce should not only possess all of the competencies desirable to improve the health of citizens and society, but should also use them in their professional practice. Four principles enunciated by the World Health Organization refer to the type of health care to which people have a right, from both an individual and a collective standpoint: quality, equity, relevance and effectiveness. Therefore, social, economic, cultural and environmental determinants of health must guide the strategic development of an educational institution.

Discussion  Social responsibility implies accountability to society for actions intended to serve it. In the health field, social accountability involves a commitment to respond as best as possible to the priority health needs of citizens and society. An educational institution should verify its impact on society by following basic principles of quality, equity, relevance and effectiveness, and by active participation in health system development. Its social accountability should be measured in three interdependent domains concerning health personnel: conceptualisation, production and utilisability. An educational institution that fully assumes the position of a responsible partner in the health care system and is dedicated to the public interest deserves a label of excellence.

Conclusions  As globalisation is reassessed for its social impact, societies will seek to justify their investments with more solid evidence of their impact on the public good. Medical schools should be prepared to be judged accordingly. There is an urgent need to foster the adaptation of accreditation standards and norms that reflect social accountability. Only then can educational institutions be measured and rewarded for their real capacity to meet the pressing health care needs of society.