Professionalism in Medicine: What Every Aspiring Physician Should Know

Premedical students will likely encounter the term “professionalism” as they go through the medical school application process. On secondary applications and in interviews, medical schools may ask applicants to describe professionalism or explain what the concept means.

We encourage students to have a grasp of the idea of professionalism as they are going through their premed journey. This understanding is not just pertinent to the med school application, it is also important as premeds prepare to become members of the medical profession.

How to Think About Professionalism as a Concept

Most students we work with have an intuitive sense of what professionalism means. They associate it with dressing a particular way, being on time or displaying knowledge and skill in a field. But expressing these ideas in a way that encapsulates an all-encompassing definition is more challenging.

Even among experts, there are different opinions about how professionalism should be defined. Students can start by looking up some of the existing definitions of professionalism in medical literature. However, premeds should go beyond existing definitions and think about what professionalism means to them personally.

One proposed definition views professionalism as having three dominant frameworks: espousing values, displaying behaviors that reflect those values and integrating those values into one’s identity.

So, what are some of the values that comprise professionalism in medicine? Many believe that concepts like competence, morality, compassion, respect, responsibility and communication are key values pertaining to professionalism in medicine.

[Read: 5 Key Characteristics of Successful Medical School Applicants.]

A moral physician, for example, is honest and acts in the best interest of the patient, even if that conflicts with the doctor’s own interests. Similarly, we as a society want our physicians to be respectful, to take their responsibilities seriously and to communicate well. Can you think of other virtues that you believe to be important aspects of professionalism in medicine?

The next framework involves a set of behaviors associated with professionalism that reflect the values of a profession. For example, one of the values listed above is responsibility. Behaviors that reflect a sense of responsibility are arriving on time, completing one’s tasks and dressing in a way that is accepted by the profession. Good communication is another value that is part of professionalism.

Behaviors that demonstrate good communication may include listening to others or speaking in a tone that is not hostile or condescending. Premeds are encouraged to think about other behaviors that may embody professionalism in medicine.

The third framework of professionalism is formation of an identity that incorporates the values of the profession. It views professionalism as a lifelong process where you constantly ask how to evolve to further adopt the values and practices embodied in your profession, how to incorporate those values into the fabric of your identity and how to promote those values and behaviors within your profession.

Why Professionalism Is Important in Medicine

In the absence of professionalism, the goals of a profession like medicine can be undermined. Can you think of the consequences of a physician not valuing morality, respect, compassion or honesty? Naturally, a physician who does not espouse these values will not display associated behaviors.

Take respect, for example. A physician who does not take seriously the idea of respecting peers and patients may not be respectful of patient confidentiality. This has become a particularly important issue in the era of social media, where a patient’s personal information can easily be revealed when physicians act irresponsibly.

[READ: How Medical School Applicants Should Manage Social Media.]

Research has shown that lack of professionalism may undermine care. For example, one recent study conducted in Cambodia and Pakistan examined professionalism in health care providers, breaking it down into components such as technical knowledge, ethical behavior, communication and compassion. The study found that inappropriate prescription of antibiotics, which has the potential to cause antimicrobial resistance, was associated with a lack of professionalism.

How Aspiring Physicians Can Embody Professionalism

Many experts believe professionalism should be learned early on in the journey toward becoming a medical doctor. So, how can premeds begin to gain qualities of professionalism and display them?

There are many different approaches, but several that have been discussed in medical literature are worth considering. Specific coursework can help aspiring physicians acquire professionalism. For example, taking a course in medical ethics is a good way to think about moral actions in the context of patient care.

[READ: 4 Ways an Ethics Course Can Prepare You for Medical School.]

Taking part in service-driven activities could also help students develop attributes such as compassion, which are relevant to professionalism. Premed students should take part in service-oriented activities such as giving back to low-income communities through volunteer work in a clinical or nonclinical setting.

Beyond activities and courses, one way to acquire professionalism is to be self-reflective. This involves thinking about the virtues embodied in the medical profession and striving to display these virtues through your behavior.

Premed students should also take advantage of their clinical experiences to observe how the physicians they work with display professionalism. This process of self-reflection and observation will enable aspiring doctors to lay the foundation for developing into a physician who embodies professionalism.

More from U.S. News

Why Premeds Should Hone Public Speaking Skills

Cultivate Communication Skills for Med School Admissions Success

3 Tips for High School Students Considering Premed

Professionalism in Medicine: What Every Aspiring Physician Should Know originally appeared on

Related Categories:

Latest News

More from WTOP

Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up