NO, YOU'RE NOT LIKELY to see ads offering "Cut-rate surgery! Prices slashed." or "Today Only: 2-for-1 Special on Major Operations." This week's ruling by the Federal Trade Commision ordering the American Medical Association to let its member doctors advertise fees and compete for patients is no carte blanche for grubby or deceptive hawking by physicians. The AMA remains free to write its own prescription for medical advertising and to enforce "reasonable ethical guidelines" to prevent prevent deceptive or unsubstantiated claims.So why not let doctors tell people what goods and services are available at what prices?

We do confess to a certain special affection for advertising--it supports newspapers. But there is also a potential benefit to be realized by the public: safe and reasonable competition with a consequent lowering of medical fees, and a beter chance for people to do some informed comparison shopping. That seems to be the case with lawyers, who have ben advertising in increasing numbers since the Supreme Court upheld their constitutional right to advertise. Prices of certain routine legal services--uncontested divorces and writing of wills, for example--have declined.

When people don't know what the going rates are, they may be timid about inquiring--and therefore may avoid medical or legal protection they need and could afford. This doesn't mean that they will be fooled by ads offering absurdly low prices for complicated work. Most people know that quality and price do have some relationship. Adding a little competition to the mix won't hurt, either. It may even be good for business. Surely there's some additional medical work that will be done when people can find out more readily where to get it at a price they can afford.

Incidentally, who does still makehouse calls -- and how much are they?