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Professionalism is in fashion at the moment. Articles on the subject are appearing in journals almost every week. Academics are writing books about it, and medical schools are running courses for students in how to be professional. In the UK, the Royal College of Physicians and the King's Fund are running a series of road shows inviting students to come and talk about how they understand professionalism and what matters to them about it.1 In spite of all this activity, professionalism is far from being a straightforward concept. Although its meaning seems obvious at first, it tends to slip through your fingers as soon as you try to define it. You may well have your own concept of what it is, but if you check it out with others you may find they have entirely different ones.
How people see professionalism seems to depend very much on who they are and what they do.2 For doctors, professionalism is often a badge of honour and a token of their independence. It signifies everything that differentiates them from others with more humble callings (although there is probably no reason to believe that hairdressers, taxi drivers or dry cleaners cannot also behave professionally). Governments and managers, by contrast, usually prefer to see professionalism in terms of doctors doing what they are told—including following official guidelines and policies. These two views of the concept are in sharp contrast to each other. They are also in contrast to those of patients, who may care very little about either doctors' sense of special status or their compliance with external directives. …
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