Professionalism in Health Professions: What Does It Take?

I have learned that being in health professional school does not make you inherently professional. Nor does it mean that professors will teach this skill to you. Learning professionalism is like learning how to communicate well or learning good bedside manner. That is to say, you can’t really learn it. I picked up on a few things I wanted to share because I did certain things the wrong way and got corrected on it. I have also watched superiors do something that I want to emulate as a future provider.

Dress code

In clinic and in health care settings with patients, scrubs are the preferred dress code. Not only that, but they are the easiest (and most comfy) attire to reach for in the early morning after a night of not-enough sleep. Lucky for us bleary-eyed students and young doctors, scrubs and all closed-toes shoes (sneakers, too) are definitely professional in the healthcare world. I have also noticed some of my classmates – both men and women – wear khaki or black pants with a dress shirt or blouse for woman underneath their school/hospital-monogrammed white coats.


In all transparency, being cordial and even-tempered with colleagues and classmates is something I need to work on myself. When having a bad day, it is so easy to lash out when you are fueled with busy days of stress and frustration. Recognizing when you need to take a step back (or take a walk outside) to prevent any communication problems with your co-workers is practicing both self-awareness and professionalism. For me, taking an actual lunch break really helps calm me down and spend some quiet time alone in the middle of the day.


True story. I wanted to get some advice from a faculty member who was assigned to my group. Because I could not pronounce her name, I simply called her “Dr.K.” I did not think much of it at the time. I honestly thought that using her first initial would be more respectful than completely mispronouncing her name. She turned to me and said, “If you can’t say my name, I can’t help you.” Although I was taken aback by her reaction, I can understand her intention. I now know that being professional also means being respectful of other cultures. Taking the extra effort to correctly pronounce the first and last names of people you work with on a regular basis is worth your while.

Reaction to feedback

I was shadowing a fourth year student in the clinic recently and the supervising faculty member did not agree with her treatment plan. Despite having the approval on the patient’s care from other faculty, she was begin critiqued by her superior. The student did not take this well. She immediately got verbally combative and started to change her tone of voice. I did not say anything to her directly, but I did make a mental note for my future encounters. Keep in mind that you are learning an working in a teaching hospital/clinic for a reason. Not everyone will agree with your treatment plan (or your opinion on other things, for that matter), but it is important to respect everyone’s opinion while remaining confidence in yourself and your training. In this case, maintaining neutral body language and communicating calmly is the most professional thing to do.

Cleaning up station or clinic or any space you get assigned

Depending on your program, you may get assigned a small station or operatory. In one class, I lose points by day if my station is left untidy. After a hard day’s work, the last thing I want to think about is mopping the floor around me. But, it is what I do to maintain my assigned area and display common courtesy and professionalism.

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Sonal Kumar

Sonal Kumar is passionate about combining science and storytelling. She has vast experiences outside of healthcare including marketing and advertising, print and broadcast journalism, including TV/radio production. Sonal is an alumna of Columbia University. She tweets @sonalkumar2011.

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