Professionalism: We must also draw on our own human qualities to succeed

An excerpt from All Physicians are Leaders: Reflections on Inspiring Change Together for Better Healthcare.

In times of uncertainty, human behavior often makes people resort to less-than-stellar behaviors; unhealthy personal environments can become manifest as well. Often, these coincide with health care being used more frequently and the safe haven of health care delivery being sought. With all physicians being leaders, it is incumbent upon us to demonstrate a variety of professional qualities, and we must also draw on our own human qualities to succeed as well.

The words “profession” and “professional” come from the Latin word professio, which means a public declaration with the force of a promise. The traditional professions are medicine, law, education, and clergy. The marks of a profession are:

  • Competence in a specialized body of knowledge and skill;
  • An acknowledgment of specific duties and responsibilities toward the individuals it serves and toward society; and
  • The right to train, admit, discipline, and dismiss its members for failure to sustain competence or observe the duties and responsibilities.

Professionalism requires that practitioners strive for excellence in the following areas, which should be modeled by mentors and teachers and become part of the attitudes, behaviors, and skills integral to patient care:

  • Altruism: A physician is obligated to attend to the best interest of patients, rather than self-interest.
  • Accountability: Physicians are accountable to their patients, to society on issues of public health, and to their profession.
  • Excellence: Physicians are obligated to make a commitment to lifelong learning.
  • Duty: A physician should be available and responsive when “on call,” accepting a commitment to service within the profession and the community.
  • Honor and integrity: Physicians should be committed to being fair, truthful, and straightforward in their interactions with patients and the profession.
  • Respect for others: A physician should demonstrate respect for patients and their families, other physicians and team members, medical students, residents, and fellows.

Of these six areas, each strikes a chord that resonates deeply. But for me, it is altruism that continues to provide the most resonance for continuing the professional route chosen. By definition, altruism is the attitude of caring about others and doing acts that help them, although one does not get anything for himself or herself by doing those acts. For whatever reason in my core psychology, altruism seems to help me in times of duress and certainly provides a sense of personal comfort even during times of success. I trust and depend on my altruism as a consistent compass bearing—a proverbial true north, if you will.

However, as we all recognize, in today’s health care industry, there is clearly much to be concerned about and so many complexities to manage among a wide range of competing priorities. Idealism is easy to speak of, and yet quite difficult to enact upon on a regular basis. Our patience and commitment to the six components of professionalism are challenged daily and routinely. And many of our peers are struggling with maintaining balanced views on professional and personal issues. We are indeed in a period when challenges may often seem to be more common than successes.

With this complexity, there is an even greater need for each of us (young or old) to look deep into what drives us as physicians. What drives us to be leaders in society? What makes us want to create larger change in the world? And what kinds of changes—or resurrection of core beliefs—are needed by each of us to make our chosen profession more satisfying? It’s a profession that still carries the opportunity for us to achieve that intense professional satisfaction we all know exists.

“Forbearance,” is a term describing the quality of being patient and being able to forgive someone or to control oneself in a difficult situation. I bring this up in the context of professionalism and altruism because it can provide an increased sense of purpose when our own life’s compass might be wavering. Forbearance also can be used when considering the need to be patient while waiting for difficult times to pass and the return of more positive activities and influences within one’s life.

Please do not mistake this suggestion of forbearance as a synonym for that old catchphrase of “just suck it up, grin and bear it.” We all have already had our fair share of dosing on delayed gratification. Forbearance is much deeper. It is a philosophy (among many) that can help us stay connected to ourselves and to the worlds in which we choose to live. We all have a purpose and passion to which we resonate. The suggestion is to simply have forbearance as we each continue to seek those passions and purposes we cherish.

I encourage each of us to continue seeking deeper levels for how we continue to draw upon our beliefs in the qualities of professionalism, altruism, and forbearance. We can generate positive influence in this at all levels.

Peter Angood is CEO and president, American Association for Physician Leadership, and author of All Physicians are Leaders: Reflections on Inspiring Change Together for Better Healthcare.

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