Background: Seminal papers on medical professionalism demonstrate a link between medical school behavior and future disciplinary action by medical boards. Other groups have studied whether negative comments on a student's Dean's letter predict problems as residents. Various groups have tried to provide concrete examples of professionalism, including a number of offenses of questionable demerit, such as taking food from a talk that one ultimately does not attend, or criticizing the internal medicine residency curriculum for being overly focused on inpatient medicine at the exclusion of outpatient medicine. Summary: The seminal studies linking professionalism to future board disciplinary action are reviewed here. Overwhelmingly, the studies demonstrate weak associations with little predictive power. Thus, professionalism scores are much more likely to wrongfully cast doubt on ultimately un-censured physicians than they are to identify problem ones. Additionally, the body of literature identifying concrete examples of unprofessional conduct is growing. Such papers stretch the definition of professionalism to include acts of dubious wrongdoing, and thus, misinterpreted, may lead to false conclusions, e.g., taking food from a talk one is not attending is a predictor of board disciplinary action. A central challenge with professionalism is identified here. If professionalism is used both as a tool to evaluate students, and a competency to be taught, a tension arises. Some professional activities, such as witnessing error and self-regulation, inherently involve speaking up. However, if students are penalized for vague and subjective ideas of professionalism, are we deterring this important trait? Current directions in professionalism education and assessment are in need of clarification. Conclusions: The link between medical school behavior and future conduct is weak. The use of such factors in promotion decisions is more likely to be arbitrary and unfair rather than genuinely identify problem physicians. There is a core tension between teaching and evaluating professionalism. What counts as professionalism is in need of definition and meaningful validation.
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