Professionalism is Not a Surrogate for Virtue

This is an excerpt of an essay I wrote my third year in college called, The Necessity of Standing Firm and Looking Up in Medical Practice. I am currently writing my required year-long reflection of my first year of medical school for Case and starting thing about this part of the essay.

Check it out.

Being a good physician is a moral and ethical decision that the professionalism movement cannot remedy alone. The professionalism movement in medicine began in the late 1980s in response to increasing unprofessional behaviors among physicians to their patients. According to the ABIM and ACP-ASIM Foundations and the European Federation of Internal Medicine, “professionalism is the basis of medicine’s contact with society” because it “demands” that the physician puts the patient’s interest first, is competent, honest and filled with integrity. However, are medical educators giving “professionalism” more restorative power than it is due? This “professionalism” conveniently shirks a functional definition of integrity. John Coulehan in Today’s Professionalism counters that in quantifying professionalism, this movement attempts to use “skills and practices as surrogates for virtue.” Coulehan’s critique reveals that “being more professional” may be an attempt to be more “virtuous” or simply put, to be more “good.” Professionalism, instead, is a garment of behaviors in response to social norms and regulations in the workplace. One might even argue that the forced instillation of “professionalism” in medical school curricula might turn this garment of behaviors into a structured suit of armor, inhibiting a humanitarian approach to the practice of medicine. Proper behavior towards patients and co-workers becomes a mere assignment.

Professionalism, in actuality, cannot fully embody altruism, honesty, respect and so many moralistic terms as described in Inui’s A Flag in the Wind. These attributes have more to do with being a good person than a professional one, and when medical educators desire to teach professionalism to medical students, are they actually trying to teach them to be more virtuous? If so, it is no wonder that it has been such a challenge for medical school communities to improve the behavior of their medical students, residents and attending physicians. One might be punctual or polite but such public displays do not guarantee that the physician is empathetic. In being good physicians, one must endeavor to be moralistically good. This does not begin with the medical school training but in a search for one’s moral tradition.

Let me know if you’d like to read more!

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