CanMEDS Professional
Learning about Professionalism

Learning about Professionalism


Graduation from medical school does not confer a guarantee of professionalism. How then, is one to become "professional"?

Having a clear definition of what is expected by the profession and society helps, but there are skills associated with this Role and some of them must be learned and practiced to perfection.  Some of this can be explicitly taught, some learned through reading or didactic exposure, but it cannot remain theoretical, it needs to be integrated into a set of approaches and behaviours. Some of what we learn during medical school and residency training is formally stated, some through watching and purposeful imitation and some is learned as if by osmosis.



This opinion piece is adapted by Dr. Jordan Cohen from his address, as President, at the Association of American Medical Colleges’(AAMC’s) Annual Meeting on November 6, 2005:

With a new year comes the usual self-reflection, so let me suggest we step back and ask, “What is it that new doctors must learn?”

The reflex answer is that new doctors must learn the scientific knowledge and acquire the technical and clinical skills needed to help patients.

But is that all? “No, not by a long shot.”

The physician professional is defined not only by what he or she must know and do, but most importantly by a profound sense of what a physician must be. Character, integrity, honor, moral fiber – these attributes are essential.

Unfortunately, the learning environments in which we educate future physicians too often fail to model the virtues of professionalism. Students learn much more about how to calibrate their moral compass from what we do than from what we say. And what we too often do is patently unprofessional.

Every time we disrespect a patient, exploit a resident, overbill for services, shill for a pharmaceutical company, or do anything that would embarrass us if published in a newspaper, we chip away at the character we profess to cherish.

We do an excellent job of preparing students to know and to do what patients need, but we must do more to develop our students’ character, and strengthen their moral fiber by conscious, conspicuous, and conscientious role modeling. In other words, we must do more to prepare them to be professionals.

No law, regulation, watchdog government agency, or fine print in an insurance contract can serve patients’ and the public’s interests as well as physicians who are honor-bound to uphold the principles and responsibilities of professionalism.[8]





8. Cohen JJ. What New Doctors Must Learn. MedGenMed.2006;8(1):45. accessed at: June 28, 2011 see also Cohen JJ. Professionalism in medical education, an American perspective: from evidence to accountability. Medical Education. 2006;40: 607–617.

All references for this section