Context: The teaching of professionalism has recently become an important issue in medical education. Medical professionalism remains controversial, but several recently published institutional documents on professionalism seem to express an implicit, yet broad consensus on three points: that professionalism mainly consists of adherence to a specific set of professional attributes constitutive of medical role morality and readily identifiable as virtues of medical professionalism (VMP); that medical education needs to focus on the endowment of these attributes, and that medical ethicists should play a central role in assuming this educational responsibility.
Methods: This paper examines the assumption that the task of supporting the development of the VMP should primarily fall to medical ethicists. Considerations in favour of this position are weighted against a set of countervailing considerations. The latter include the charge that the VMP are too vague as educational guidelines, that they may not be teachable, and that the responsibility for their development must be shared across the medical faculty.
Conclusions: Medical ethics educators are right to embrace the professionalism agenda on four conditions: that the limitations of addressing the formation of professional attributes in university-based teaching are recognised; that there is clinical as well as university-based evaluation of professional attributes; that the development of the VMP as a process of professional socialisation is seen as an interdisciplinary educational project, and that the examination and explanation of the cognitive grounds of the VMP are the focus of medical educators' activities.