The American Medical Association indicated a new willingness yesterday to compromise on its strong opposition to any regulation by the Federal Trade Commission of the way professions do business.

Although still asking Congress to set some limits on the FTC's regulatory authority over the professions, the AMA appeared during testimony before a House subcommittee to have dropped its demand for a complete exemption for doctors, dentists, engineers and other professionals licensed by the states.

Furthermore, in a major shift from its position last year, when it failed to win an exemption, the AMA yesterday recognized the validity of a U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld the FTC's authority over the professions.

But Jay Angoff of Congress Watch, whose organization monitored the AMA's efforts last year to gain an exemption, noted that it has "changed its tone" while questioning whether it made a substanative shift in its position. "I don't think they have," he said.

AMA Board Chairman Dr. Joseph F. Boyle told the House commerce, transportation and tourism subcommittee that his organization has been meeting with FTC Chairman James C. Miller III in an effort to find some common ground.

"The AMA has seen the handwriting on the wall. Its officials realize it will be next to impossible to get the complete exemption they want," said one FTC official.

The AMA, moreover, was hit yesterday with a major defection from the ranks of medical groups when the American College of Physicians testified in favor of continued FTC regulation of the business practices of medicine. Although the College of Physicians is small, representing about 56,000 specialists in internal medicine, it is one of the most prestigious groups in the profession.

"We believe that to prevent FTC scrutiny of those aspects of health-care delivery which are directly linked to the business of health care would be inappropriate. Additionally, we believe that exempting the medical profession from all FTC review would create a special privileged class and is therefore inequitable," college officials said.

The AMA, American Dental Association and National Society of Professional Engineers all testified on the need to limit FTC oversight over their professions.

AMA Chairman Boyle insisted that his organization's aim was not "in any way concerned with trying to keep fees at high levels" but rather to assure the continuation of public-service aspects of organized medicine--including such self-regulatory activities as peer review to assure quality service and checks on unethical conduct.

"Currently many beneficial activities are being abandoned by professional associations for fear of becoming involved in an expensive and time-consuming battle with the FTC," said Boyle.

"We strongly believe Congress has a responsibility to clearly define the commission's jurisdiction in order to preserve the traditional role of the states in governing who may practice a health profession, who may not and under what conditions," added ADA President Dr. Burton H. Press.