Professionalism. What does this word mean? According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the definition is: “The conduct, aims, or qualities that characterize or mark a profession or a professional person.” But what does this mean with respect to health care professionals? As stated in the Hippocratic Oath, health care professionals will “lead [their] life and practice [their] art in uprightness and honor” and that they will “hold [themselves] aloof from wrong and from corruption and from tempting others to vice….”
Even with these exact definitions, a myriad of questions abound that lead to gray areas of interpretation and perception of what professionalism means in our day-to-day activities: What does professionalism mean to those who educate tomorrow’s health care professionals? What does professionalism mean to those who are studying to become tomorrow’s health care professionals? Does professionalism mean one thing for one group, but then mean something different for another group? I’m sure there are those in each group who would emphatically answer “yes” to that last question. However, when it comes down to it, the answer to whether groups should have their own standards is and should always be an emphatic “no.”
To me, what professionalism boils down to is that we all maintain a basic respect for all individuals as human beings, in all aspects of our professional life regardless of your own personal beliefs. I don’t mean respect for those who look, talk, and act exactly like you do or respect for those who may worship the same as you or hold the same political ideals as you do. I mean having the basic respect for an individual simply because they are a part of the human race and deserve to be treated with dignity.
While professionalism in health care may refer to the interactions that occur in the clinic, it is not limited solely to these activities. Professionalism is also important in the classroom, where lecturers may make comments that are inappropriate, insensitive, and offensive to students. Alternatively, professionalism extends to a student’s actions or comments toward a lecturer, whether those comments are made directly to the lecturer or indirectly in conversation with other students, comments that may lack respect and may also be insensitive or offensive.
The complexities of professionalism extend to and include the 21st century creation known as social media. Many people feel that because the interactions are faceless, hidden behind the veil of an electronic facade that it is okay to be less strict with what constitutes professional behavior. Further, individuals may feel that they do not have to monitor their words, or adhere to the common sense of professionalism simply because the interactions are not occurring on “official institutional” sites.
These thoughts are misconceptions. Social media creates a lasting record of our words, our comments, and our actions. These records are in the public domain and in most cases freely accessible to anyone interested in finding out who we are. For students, social media observers could include individuals who may interview you for residency programs or individuals who may hire you as faculty members. For faculty, these observers could include individuals who sit on promotions committees, prospective students or residents interested in your educational programs, or even upper administration interested in seeing how members represent and reflect the ideals of their institute.
So what are some general points to keep in mind to help guide all of us in what constitutes professional behavior? First, remember that even if you are not at LSU or on an official LSU electronic group, your actions and words represent this institution. People will see or hear what is said and done, they will know that we are a member of the LSU community, and equate our actions with our institution. Second, act and speak as if you were talking to the person or persons who are deciding your future. Before you press “send” or before you speak or act, think about how these actions and words would be viewed by someone professionally evaluating you. Third, in all of your actions ask yourself a very simple question: “Would I say or do what I’m about to do if I were wearing my white coat?” The white coat could be the short white coat of the student, the long white coat of a resident or faculty, or the long white coat of the basic scientist. Finally, adhere to the basic moral code to treat others as you would have them treat you. Keep in mind that there are derogatory epithets to describe every single community or group; there are actions and words that many different types of individuals may find offensive. Before you speak, act, or press “send”, think of those words or actions you might find offensive and then think how you would feel if those words were displayed publicly.
The concepts of professionalism apply to everyone: administrators, professors, lecturers, residents, students, and staff. The concepts of professionalism apply to all venues: the meeting room, the clinic, the classroom, the laboratory, the cafeteria, social media, and social events where groups of professionals meet to relax and enjoy each other’s company. It should not be applied differently to different groups, but instead it should be a common denominator in how everyone interacts with and treats others. Never forget professionalism because it is one of the central foundations on how an institution functions, both within the institution and the perception of the institution in the community.