Medical students' experiences of shame in professional enculturation

Med Educ. 2011 Oct;45(10):1016-24. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2923.2011.04022.x. Epub 2011 Aug 30.


Context: Despite the intentions of caregivers not to harm, medical encounters may involve intimidation and induce emotions of shame. Reflection is a critical part of professional learning and training. However, the role of shame in medical education has scarcely been studied. The aim of this study was to explore medical students' reflections on shame-related experiences in clinical situations and to examine how they tackled these experiences.

Methods: A 24-credit course in Professional Development is held at the Medical School of Umeå University, Sweden. A 1-day seminar on the theme of shame, which involves individual reflections and group discussions, is held in term 9. Medical students were invited to individually consider and write down their memories of situations in which they had experienced shame in clinical encounters. Of a total of 133 students, 75 were willing to share their written reflections anonymously. Their essays were transcribed to computer text and analysed by means of qualitative content analysis.

Results: Three themes emerged. These included: Difficulties in disclosing shame; Shame-inducing circumstances, and Avoiding or addressing shame. Initially, students experienced problems in recalling shameful incidents, but successively described various situations which related to being taken by surprise, being exposed, and being associated with staff imprudence. Students disclosed shame avoidance behaviours, but also gave examples of how addressing shame provided them with new insights and restored their dignity.

Conclusions: Students' reflections on shameful experiences elucidated the importance of attitudes, manners, standards and hierarchies in clinical situations. These are important issues to highlight in the professional enculturation of medical students; our emphasising of them may encourage medical teachers elsewhere to organise similar activities. Opportunities for mentoring medical students in tackling shame and adverse feelings, and in resolving conflict, are needed in medical curricula.

MeSH terms

  • Attitude of Health Personnel*
  • Education, Medical / methods*
  • Education, Medical / standards
  • Humans
  • Physical Examination / psychology*
  • Physician-Patient Relations
  • Professional Competence*
  • Shame*
  • Students, Medical / psychology*
  • Sweden