Vanderbilt University School of Medicine (VUSM) employs several strategies for teaching professionalism. This article, however, reviews VUSM’s alternative, complementary approach: identifying, measuring, and addressing unprofessional behaviors. The key to this alternative approach is a supportive infrastructure that includes VUSM leadership’s commitment to addressing unprofessional/disruptive behaviors, a model to guide intervention, supportive institutional policies, surveillance tools for capturing patients’ and staff members’ allegations, review processes, multilevel training, and resources for addressing disruptive behavior.
Our model for addressing disruptive behavior focuses on four graduated interventions: informal conversations for single incidents, nonpunitive “awareness” interventions when data reveal patterns, leader-developed action plans if patterns persist, and imposition of disciplinary processes if the plans fail. Every physician needs skills for conducting informal interventions with peers; therefore, these are taught throughout VUSM’s curriculum. Physician leaders receive skills training for conducting higher-level interventions. No single strategy fits every situation, so we teach a balance beam approach to understanding and weighing the pros and cons of alternative intervention-related communications. Understanding common excuses, rationalizations, denials, and barriers to change prepares physicians to appropriately, consistently, and professionally address the real issues.
Failing to address unprofessional behavior simply promotes more of it. Besides being the right thing to do, addressing unprofessional behavior can yield improved staff satisfaction and retention, enhanced reputation, professionals who model the curriculum as taught, improved patient safety and risk-management experience, and better, more productive work environments.