Today, my team and I are launching an exciting new project. The Medical Professionalism Project is a 12-episode online course for healthcare providers that explores the complex expectations, challenges, and responsibilities of being a healthcare professional. In it, we bring together experts in behavioral science and medicine to address some of the most pressing issues in field today, including conflicts of interest, burnout, shared decision-making, and social norms.
This topic is very important to me. As you may know, as a teenager I was badly burned in accident. I spent three years in the hospital recovering, and returned regularly for several years after for continued treatments and check-ups. In that time, I came to know and deeply respect the medical team that provided my care. They were a group of incredibly smart, driven, and compassionate people.
But in my recovery, I also observed something else – healthcare providers are not perfect. That is to say, they are human. They have biases, maintain misconceptions, and make mistakes.
A few years after I was released from the hospital, one of my favorite surgeons approached me about an exciting new treatment. With enthusiasm, he explained that he had an innovative fix to the fact that my facial hair grew unevenly. His solution? He was going to tattoo the burned side of my face to mimic a stubble.
Despite his eagerness, the procedure did not interest me. When I turned him down, the surgeon began to berate me – What was my problem? Did I like looking this way? Did I enjoy the attention I got because of my burns?
I was shocked. This doctor had never spoken to me this way, and I couldn’t understand why he was so worked up about a procedure that was not essential to my health. Dismayed, I went to his deputy and asked what was going on. The deputy said, “Oh, we’ve tried it on two people, but we need at least three for an academic paper.”
This doctor was not a bad guy – he was dedicated and empathetic physician to whom I owe a lot. I think incredibly highly of him to this day. But he was not immune to other forces, and here he had a conflict of interest that allowed him to prioritize his desire to publish over respecting my wishes.
Research shows that we are all susceptible to these slips, and a crucial way to combat them is to be reminded our moral integrity. Medicine is profession of great integrity and sacrifice, but in today’s pressured practice environment, there is not a lot of space for reflection and reminders. That’s where we come in. Our hope through this course is to inspire an ongoing dialogue about the role of ethics and professionalism in medicine – and the challenges to maintaining it – in order to create more honesty and accountability, to better support the providers who have dedicated their careers to helping us.