Professionalism is au courant in medicine today, but the movement to teach and evaluate professionalism presents a conundrum to medical educators. Its intent is laudable: to produce humanistic and virtuous physicians who will be better able to cope with and overcome the dehumanizing features of the health care system in the United States. However, its impact on medical education is likely to be small and misleading because current professionalism curricula focus on lists of rules and behaviors. While such curricula usually refer to virtues and personal qualities, these are peripheral because their impacts cannot be specifically assessed.
The author argues that today’s culture of medicine is hostile to altruism, compassion, integrity, fidelity, self-effacement, and other traditional qualities. Hospital culture and the narratives that support it often embody a set of professional qualities that are diametrically opposed to virtues that are explicitly taught as constituting the “good” doctor. Young physicians experience internal conflict as they try to reconcile the explicit and covert curricula, and they often develop nonreflective professionalism. Additional courses on professionalism are unlikely to alter this process. Instead, the author proposes a more comprehensive approach to changing the culture of medical education to favor an approach he calls narrative-based professionalism and to address the tension between self-interest and altruism. This approach involves four specific catalysts: professionalism role-modeling, self-awareness, narrative competence, and community service.