Doctors in society. Medical professionalism in a changing world

Clin Med (Lond). 2005 Nov-Dec;5(6 Suppl 1):S5-40.


Medicine bridges the gap between science and society. Indeed, the application of scientific knowledge to human health is a crucial aspect of clinical practice. Doctors are one important agent through which that scientific understanding is expressed. But medicine is more than the sum of our knowledge about disease. Medicine concerns the experiences, feelings, and interpretations of human beings in often extraordinary moments of fear, anxiety, and doubt. In this extremely vulnerable position, it is medical professionalism that underpins the trust the public has in doctors. This Working Party was established to define the nature and role of medical professionalism in modern society. Britain's health system is undergoing enormous change. The entry of multiple health providers, the wish for more equal engagement between patients and professionals, and the ever-greater contribution of science to advances in clinical practice all demand a clear statement of medicine's unifying purpose and doctors' common values. What is medical professionalism and does it matter to patients? Although evidence is lacking that more robust professionalism will inevitably lead to better health outcomes, patients certainly understand the meaning of poor professionalism and associate it with poor medical care. The public is well aware that an absence of professionalism is harmful to their interests. The Working Party's view, based on the evidence it has received, is that medical professionalism lies at the heart of being a good doctor. The values that doctors embrace set a standard for what patients expect from their medical practitioners. The practice of medicine is distinguished by the need for judgement in the face of uncertainty. Doctors take responsibility for these judgements and their consequences. A doctor's up-to-date knowledge and skill provide the explicit scientific and often tacit experiential basis for such judgements. But because so much of medicine's unpredictability calls for wisdom as well as technical ability, doctors are vulnerable to the charge that their decisions are neither transparent nor accountable. In an age where deference is dead and league tables are the norm, doctors must be clearer about what they do, and how and why they do it. We define medical professionalism as a set of values, behaviours, and relationships that underpin the trust the public has in doctors. We go on to describe what those values, behaviours, and relationships are, how they are changing, and why they matter. This is the core of our work. We have also identified six themes where our definition has further implications: leadership, teams, education, appraisal, careers, and research. The Working Party's definition and description of medical professionalism, and the recommendations arising from them, can be found in Section 5 of this report. If our recommendations are acted upon, we believe that professionalism could flourish and prosper to the benefit of patients and doctors alike. However, the exercise of medical professionalism is hampered by the political and cultural environment of health, which many doctors consider disabling. The conditions of medical practice are critical determinants for the future of professionalism. We argue that doctors have a responsibility to act according to the values we set out in this report. Equally, other members of the healthcare team--notably managers--have a reciprocal duty to help create an organisational infrastructure to support doctors in the exercise of their professional responsibilities. Just as the patient-doctor partnership is a pivotal therapeutic relationship in medicine, so the interaction between doctor and manager is central to the delivery of professional care. High-quality care depends on both effective health teams and efficient health organisations. Professionalism therefore implies multiple commitments--to the patient, to fellow professionals, and to the institution or system within which healthcare is provided, to the extent that the system supports patients collectively. A doctor's corporate responsibility, shared as it is with managers and others, is a frequently neglected aspect of modern practice. The audience for this report is, first and foremost, doctors. But we believe it should be of equal interest to patients, policy-makers, members of other health professions, and the media. All these groups have a vital part to play in discussing and advancing medical professionalism. This report is only the beginning of an effort by the Royal College of Physicians, together with others, to initiate a public dialogue about the role of the doctor in creating a healthier and fairer society. Medical professionalism has roots in almost every aspect of modern healthcare. This Working Party could not hope to solve all the issues and conflicts surrounding professionalism in practice today. But our collective and abiding wish is to put medical professionalism back onto the political map of health in the UK.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Leadership
  • Physician's Role*
  • Physician-Patient Relations
  • Professional Practice / standards
  • Professional Practice / trends*
  • Social Change*
  • Social Perception
  • Social Values
  • Societies, Medical
  • Sociology, Medical / trends*
  • Trust
  • United Kingdom