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Excellence in Healthcare Professions

In this article, Victoria Camps further develop the notions that she presented in her book Virtudes públicas: embedded within the idea of professionalism, including professionalism par excellence or that of any number of professions, there is a strong scientific and technical component in the definition of the term. Unfortunately, laments the author, a good professional is considered someone who is, above all, an expert and not someone who is morally committed to what he or she does or, consequently, to society in general. This is particularly true in health professions since professionals of this field must have their expert knowledge embedded within a context of a morally-committed professional community.

Professionalism as a Virtue

When I wrote the book Public Virtues [1], I included professionalism among the virtues that characterize our current era. I believed that professionalism was a value on the rise and was highly regarded in societies where knowledge had and would continue to play an increasingly crucial role. Nonetheless, my view of professionalism as a virtue was formulated more than fifteen years ago and with a question mark. My reasoning was based on the feeling that the sense of professionalism most commonly exhibited these days is far from being what we could consider a moral virtue.

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More and more, the concept of a good professional tends to be linked to that of an expert, a person who is competent in a certain field of knowledge, and not the ideal of a person who is committed to and morally responsible for the functions or activities they carry out. I am speaking of something I wrote some time ago, as I mentioned before. If I bring it up now, running the risk of sounding immodest by beginning this reflection by quoting myself, it is only to corroborate that I maintain my point of view as expressed then. Indeed, the common popular definition of professionalism, or even of professional excellence, regardless of the profession in question, is related to scientific and technical competence, to possessing knowledge and set of specific skills and abilities. A good professional is, above all, an expert; not a person who is morally committed to what they do and, by extension, to society as a whole.

This definition of professionalism-or professional excellence, which is really the same-reveals the reductionism and simplification typical of a world that judges a person’s behavior more on its results than on the principles they should follow and serve. In a way, professionalism is equivalent to a job well done. However, the concept of work has also been reduced to a certain technical skill, a practical ability, which does not go beyond doing things materially well. A good architect should design buildings that do not fall down; a good engineer should build bridges that do not collapse: a good teacher should know how to pass on knowledge to their students; a good doctor is one that can correctly diagnose and treat patients.

In any case, having the necessary scientific and technical competence is, undoubtedly, the first moral duty of a professional. However, it is not the only one, as professional responsibility requires something more. It requires more in all professions, regardless of their projection and social density, but particularly in those whose aim and purpose is the quality of human life, such as the healthcare professions. In this article, I intend to define the elements of this moral plus required of professional excellence in general and, particularly, in the healthcare field.

It is not difficult, in principle, to assign a plus of moral excellence to healthcare professions. Medicine was the first profession to create a code of ethics, in a time when the profession did not even exist as such. The Hippocratic oath [2] does not only layout medical prohibitions, it is also a personal code of conduct derived from the concept of medicine as an “art” (techné) based upon observation and specific cases. The Hippocratic texts, in theory, shape a physician’s ethos, their method. This behavior must focus not only on the patient’s best interests but also on upholding the physician’s reputation and that of the profession. Due to the complexity of the art in question, this behavior must take into account all those affected.

Life is short, and the Art long; the occasion fleeting; experience fallacious, and judgment difficult. The physician must not only be prepared to do what is right himself, but also to make the patient, the attendants, and externals cooperate.
(Hippocratic Treatises, “Aphorisms”)

Chinese philosopher Confucius wrote: “Medicine is a human art”. It should not be understood only as a means to cure but as a moral commitment to preventing all avoidable suffering. A practice-based on love and respect for others that, as in the Hippocratic oath, should be ruled by the principle of not harming and doing good, respecting patients without discrimination. More than a practice based on laws, Confucius and his followers understood medicine as a practice based on the cultivation of virtue, which, in turn, is nurtured by feelings such as piety, shame, and respect.

We should treat the patients as our mothers.
(Tianchen Li, Ming Dynasty)

Whoever comes to seek a cure must be treated as your own relatives regardless of their social status, family economic conditions, appearances, ages, races, and mental abilities.
(Simiao Sun, Tang Dynasty) [3]

Since such ideas were written twenty-five hundred years ago, in general, the goal of medicine has not changed. On one hand, the patient must be cared for, preserved from harm, avoiding corruption and injustice. On the other hand, a good collaborative relationship with other members of the profession must be established.

Although Hippocrates had already mentioned that one of a physician’s aims is to preserve their good reputation, it was Thomas Percival (1740-1804), a philosopher and physician famous for his moral tales for children and author of codes of medical ethics, who stressed the need to go beyond individual actions in professional practice. In his view, a professional must be able to put the patient’s interests and those of the general public before their own. The positive public image of medical practice is as important as dedication to the patient.

The theory is rarely questioned, but the practice is still a long way from truly reflecting this. In real life, scientific excellence does not always go hand in hand with ethical excellence because personal interests take precedence over general interests or the interests of others. The dangers of medical practice laid out in the great classics of medical deontology are exacerbated as the profession becomes more commercial and knowledge more specialized and technical. Max Weber (1864-1920), in his theory of the profession, a term he compared to “vocation”, warned of the first of these threats. The word Beruf, used by Weber to refer to different human occupations or activities, can mean both “divine calling” and “human profession”.

The idea came from Luther in his translation of the Bible, where he compared contemplative monastic life, which he himself held in low esteem, to professional life in order to highlight the importance of the latter as an explicit expression of love for one’s neighbor. The duality of profession and vocation allows Weber to express the loss of vocational spirit in human activities, reducing them to mere professions in which bureaucracy and profit-seeking inhibit any other purpose. This is yet another aspect of the disenchantment of the world which he refers to throughout his work.

Linked to the idea of vocation, to the idea of commitment or mission, a profession requires dedication to its own ends, which should go beyond private interests. However, despite the theory, Weber [4] regrets that earning money has become the goal of professions; that accumulation of wealth has become an end in and of itself. It seems that our capitalist system and the economic subordination of all activities make it impossible to recover professional ethics. In the end, everything is a business.

Similar to Weber, American sociologist Talcott Parsons (1902-1979) [5], referring specifically to medicine, insists that this profession should be understood as “an ideology of service” and not as pure business, since it deals with a social problem such as health. Undoubtedly, both cases postulate idealized professionalism, which is driven by altruism rather than profitability. This idealization is a far cry from reality, but should perhaps be maintained as an ideal if we want to discuss professional excellence that is not limited to material aspects but encompasses a clear moral dimension.

Beyond rhetorical idealizations, the concept of vocation that is implicit and inseparable from that of profession would always take into account Weber’s final conclusions in his splendid lecture “Politics as a Vocation” [6]. In these conclusions, he demanded that politicians-and, by extension, anyone who feels called to do something interesting in this word-know how to set their own limits when prevented by circumstance from maintaining ethical principles.

However, it is immensely moving when a mature man -no matter whether old or young in years- is aware of a responsibility for the consequences of his conduct and really feels such responsibility with heart and soul. He then acts by following an ethic of responsibility and somewhere he reaches the point where he says: “Here I stand; I can do no other.”
(Max Weber, “Politics as a Vocation”).

In addition to the reigning materialism and economism, yet another aspect has come to distort, in our time, the sense of professional excellence we would like to maintain even if only as a regulatory idea: what Ortega denounced as “specialism” [7] when referring to the one-dimensionality of scientific and technical knowledge. It so happens that, in this case, we face an obstacle that is not only unavoidable but also necessary for the development of knowledge. Only specialization and division allow knowledge to progress.

On the other hand, however, the moral dimension that should be inextricably linked with professional excellence is closer to humanistic knowledge than to that of a pure scientist. In the case of healthcare professionals, their aim goes beyond mere “diagnosis and treatment”, as philosopher Hans George Gadamer [8] explains. The professional is not only required to have sound scientific knowledge but should also know how to “restore” harmony, to “treat” a human being, to “help” them live differently, to “advise”. Another widely read sociologist, Zygmunt Bauman, regrets that we are living in a society of experts, which in itself is unfit to cope with a complex world [9]. In such a society, the “person as a whole” is seldom deserving of attention: we are organs whose functions require care.

Health depends on many different factors and the final goal is not so much regaining health itself as enabling patients once again to enjoy the role they had previously fulfilled in their everyday lives.
Hans George Gadamer, The Enigma of Health.

The “specialism” denounced by Ortega, the scientific obsession derived from positivism that requires proof (evidence) and figures, lead C.P. Snow [10], more than fifty years ago, to call for the fusion of the two cultures: humanist and scientific. These two cultures were born and developed in unison, although they were later so definitively separated as to make communication between the two nearly impossible. In a way, the birth of bioethics responds to the need to recover the lost unity between science and humanities. A unity without which, in the words of Wittgenstein, the most vital questions remain un-posed.

We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus  [11]

Professions nowadays have become, in short, well or poorly executed “careers”. To have a successful professional career has become synonymous with success in a profession, which itself is synonymous with achieving a level of excellence that, frequently, is equivalent to getting rich. Success today is more related to money, fame and material success than to excellence derived from good practice, which is not always acknowledged by society or the profession itself.

In short, the commodification of the profession, which impedes us from looking beyond mere private material interest, and the technical reductionism derived from knowledge specialization are two great obstacles to healthcare professionals acquiring and implementing a moral dimension in their work. Without it, the two goals set by both ancient and modern classics of medical deontology will be missed: patient welfare and cooperation in building a positive image of the profession. Professional ethos, if reduced to a mere mercantile and bureaucratic ethos, does not cultivate the values or virtues that healthcare practice should display. Marañón [12] wrote that physicians did not need to be trained in ethics because their vocation would lead them naturally to behave virtuously from a moral point of view.

But Marañón was mistaken in this particular aspect because, just as has happened in other professions, including the most highly renowned (which used to include medicine, in addition to priesthood and judgeship), healthcare professional have lost their vocational dimension or, at least, said dimension has been inhabited by other more pressing or attractive needs and interests. Other interests, it should also be said, that are more highly renowned and applauded by society. However we look at it, it seems difficult to speak of excellence without assigning this word a moral significance. The term “excellence”, as I will explain shortly, comes from the Greek areté, which can be translated as “virtue” or “excellence of a thing”. Thus, if we want to recover the idea of professional excellence, we must analyze which virtues, which qualities, define said excellence. The next section is devoted to this topic.

To conclude this initial approach to healthcare professionals, we should state that the dimensions of said professionalism, if what we seek is excellence in its fullest sense, should cover the following objectives:

– Patient’s best interest as a priority.
– Cooperation with other healthcare professionals.
– Concern for the profession’s good image.
– Openness to humanist knowledge.

Virtues of Healthcare Professions

In the previous section, I have tried to explain that professionalism may be considered a virtue or an ethical value if it meets certain requirements. Generally, such requirements have to do with the professional’s open-mindedness regarding ethics and their empathy towards other people, beyond the scientific competence an expert is assumed and required to have. However, what we have covered so far must be specified further. To do this we will return to our discussion of virtues, now looking at those virtues that are intrinsic and specific to healthcare professions. To this end, we must begin by clarifying this insistence on discussing the concept of virtue.

Any person well trained in philosophy, as I am afraid I am, cannot avoid associating the term ‘excellence’ with areté, the Greek term that is usually translated as “virtue”. This is because Aristotle [13], the great theorist of virtue as the core of ethics, defines virtue precisely as the excellence of a thing. Everything in this world has its virtue, which consists of the faithful achievement of the object’s assigned or foreseen end. The virtue of a musical instrument, a racehorse, or an Olympic athlete lies in fulfilling, respectively, the functions of a musical instrument, a racehorse, or an Olympic athlete.

By analogy with certain realities whose ends are clearly defined, Aristotle poses a more complex question, which is the starting point of his ethics: what is man’s intrinsic function or end and which virtues must he have to achieve it? The first part of the question, in his mind, needs no discussion: the goal of human life is happiness. However, the complicated part is not stating that a being human’s goal is to be happy, but specifying what one must do or how one must behave in order to achieve this. Hence his treatises on virtues, namely Nicomachean Ethics and Eudemian Ethics, in which he lists the virtues a free man requires in order to achieve his end.

Every virtue or excellence both brings into good condition the thing of which it is the excellence and makes the work of that thing be done well; e.g. the excellence of the eye makes both the eye and its work good; for it is by the excellence of the eye that we see well. Similarly, the excellence of the horse makes a horse both good in itself and good at running and at carrying its rider and at awaiting the attack of the enemy. Therefore, if this is true in every case, the virtue of man also will be the state of character which makes a man good and which makes him do his own work well.
Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics.

Some of the virtues Aristotle proposes as qualities of an excellent human being are still current today and can help us contextualize healthcare professionalism. However, above all, what really helps us deal with this issue is the concept of virtue itself as those qualities a person must acquire in order to do what they are intended to do well. I do not see a better way, then, to raise the issue of excellence in healthcare professions than by analyzing which virtues such professionals should have. Because their goal, in this case, has already been defined.

The goal is patient welfare. This aspect is not subject to debate. However, what should be discussed is the way in which it is achieved and the way the contradictions that may come up are dealt with. Aristotle also had an opinion to this respect: we deliberate not about ends-happiness, patient welfare-, but about the means with which to achieve them. In our case, we will deliberate on the virtues of healthcare practice. What are these virtues?

Several contemporary scholars have worked on this issue. The evolution of bioethics, with the aim of defining the fundamental principles of healthcare ethics, has helped analyze which key values professionals must hold in order to maintain said principles. James F. Drane [14] suggests the main virtues of medical practice should be benevolence, respect, care, truthfulness, friendliness, and justice. Edmund Pellegrino and Thomasma [15] also mention truthfulness, respect, compassion, justice, integrity, and self-effacement.

Finally, to cite only three examples of renowned authors in this field, Marc Siegler [16] believes that respect for others is an essential virtue of healthcare practice, which in itself includes compassion, truthfulness, and trust. We should also say that both Pellegrino and Tomasma and Siegler add another virtue: prudence or phronesis, which they understand to be the synthesis of all other virtues, and so indeed it is. Later I will refer extensively to this virtue, which I consider fundamental. As for the others, it is not difficult to see them as the translation of values implicit in the celebrated principles of bioethics into personal attitudes, particularly the more modern ones, such as autonomy and justice.

Indeed, respect and sincerity are two ways of taking into account a patient’s autonomy, their freedom of choice, and right to be informed as to what is happening. Justice, in itself, has been one of the fundamental virtues since antiquity. It also constitutes the essential obligation of all healthcare policies in a welfare state, and this is contemporary, not ancient. And if justice is an essential obligation of the social state, its implementation likewise depends on the behavior of healthcare professionals with regards to non-discrimination, but also to altruism and professional integrity, which should always put public interest before private interest. With regards to benevolence, the virtue of compassion, of empathy, is perhaps the best disposition to seek patient welfare, which is what the principle of benevolence prescribes.

The value or virtue of care deserves a separate paragraph. Although not all of the aforementioned authors take this value into consideration, it is nonetheless among the most promoted values within the realm of virtues in general, and particularly among those of the healthcare professions. Since Florence Nightingale took it on herself to define the work of nurses, caring has been the most specific goal of nursing. It is still so, although caring has become much more relevant as the result of a healthcare sector that focuses more on caring than curing. American philosopher Carole Gillian [17] was the first to highlight the existence of care as an ethical value, a value that is parallel and complementary to justice, and that had been ignored in a world made up exclusively of men.

It is true, justice has always been the center of moral concern, ever since Plato’s Republic, but this morality structured around justice has looked down on or silenced another value that just as essential as justice: the value of care. That care has been overlooked can be explained by the fact that a willingness to care for others has always been more feminine than a masculine trait. Historically, women have typically been the ones to care for children, the ill, and the elderly. This is the way nobody has paid serious attention to care as a value. It was seen as a task that belonged exclusively to the realm of private life, with little or no professional status.

But this is no longer the case. Not only has care been professionalized, but it has also become one of the main goals of healthcare professionals in general. At least this is what is said in the renowned article published by the Hastings Center, The Goals of Medicine [18]. One of these goals is, precisely, to care for all patients, especially those who cannot be cured. One must hope that the obvious feminization of medical practice will help bring an end to the marginalization of care, giving it the central position it deserves.

I have mentioned above that it is also necessary to talk about prudence, another virtue that, in my mind, is essential to understanding medical practice, particularly if we want to frame it in an ethical context. Being prudent, in the classical sense, means nothing more than knowing how to appropriately apply a rule. Healthcare professionals must care for people or individuals with distinctive characteristics and situations. In a way, each case to be treated is unique. Thus, it is clear that, in the professions of medicine and nursing, automatic application of rules or protocols does not work. Aristotle used the good physician as an example of a prudent man.

This is-he said-the one that succeeds in curing the patient, not always the wisest, although knowledge of medical science, in this case, is taken for granted. Professional excellence includes, thus, the prudence to focus on the specific case at hand, even breaking from normal rules if the case so requires, but only if necessary. A prudent decision is not reached only by applying the previously learned formula. It is the personal decision of a good professional. Mark Siegler, who also rates prudence above any other virtue, refers to Plato’s Laws to explain it, which recommends an adequate contextualization.

Schematically, since the explanation of each of the previously mentioned virtues could lead to a whole treatise, and without any intention of being exhaustive, healthcare professionals seeking excellence should acquire the following virtues:

– Benevolence.
– Respect.
– Care.
– Sincerity.
– Friendliness.
– Justice.
– Compassion.
– Integrity.
– Self-effacement.
– Prudence.

Theory and Practice

So far, we have discussed professional ethics, the virtues healthcare professionals make their own. But ethics always face a problem that we cannot fail to consider. Ethics is theory and professional excellence is shown through practice. Thus, in moral philosophy, there is no other option than to deal with the question of the relationship between theory and practice: Does professional ethics, the discourse of virtues, actually influence medical practice? What can be done to make this influence real?

Virtues are more than just rational decisions a person takes when facing a conflict. Both reason and feelings play a role in acquiring these virtues. Because virtues are a disposition to act; they are attitudes; they are acquired through habit; they are a way of being, and they forge a person’s character. In other words, they are not rules to be obeyed. Aristotle conceived of a virtuous life as the construction of a sort of second nature, what the Greek called ethos, character. Nobody is born being nice or sincere or just, nor will they take on these characteristics simply by following a list of rules on occasion, sporadically.

A person is virtuous because they are used to acting virtuously; being just, nice, sincere, or respectful is part of their character. A virtuous person does not believe they must comply with some duty: they act this way spontaneously; we could say because they feel it. Therefore best practices, what I have called “virtuous” practices, are not achieved through theoretic classes on professional ethics. They are acquired in day-to-day practice, based on having to resolve everyday problems and conflicts.

Our aim is not to know what justice is, but to be just.
(Aristotle, Eudemian Ethics)

Knowing about virtue is not enough, but we must also try to possess and exercise virtue, or become good in any other way
(Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics)

This does not imply that theoretical knowledge of values and ethical principles of healthcare practice are worthless. They are not at all, of course. But theory does not suffice. I discussed above the virtue of prudence. Well, there is no better way of teaching what the virtue of prudence means than by showing the example of a prudent person. The best pedagogy is practice, which serves as an example. This does not mean that theory should be underestimated. Bioethics, as a reflection on healthcare practice, has greatly increased awareness among healthcare professionals of the moral dimension of their profession.

This increased awareness has come about in both universities and hospitals as the concept is introduced, through slowly and with difficulty it must be said. However, above all, what the presence of bioethics in the clinical arena has done, and continues to do, is to help create a culture that focuses on the more human aspects of clinical practice. James Drane aptly defines bioethics when he states that its function is to prevent healthcare conflicts from always ending up in court. Bioethics could prevent this by mediating in the conflict, by helping see that the professional doesn’t shirk their responsibility but assumes it and helps find a conciliatory solution.

One way of connecting theory and practice consists of avoiding the legal reductionism that currently threatens all professions. The origin of the concept of the profession is religious. Hence the term “profession”, which refers to belief in a certain religious faith. It is this origin Max Weber plays on so brilliantly when equating profession to vocation. In Foundation and Education in Bioethics, Diego Gracia [19] explains how this religious origin resulted in professional practice taking on a more ethical than a legal responsibility.

It has only been since the 19th century and the constitution of states of law that tend to see all professions as equal, leaving no transgression of the required ethics unpunished, that ethical responsibility has been reduced to legal responsibility. This is a far cry from the parameters established in the first deontology codes of professional associations that Thomas Percival referred to, in which the ideal was the virtuous physician, a “minister of the ill”.

Consolidating Trust

Trust is one of the virtues mentioned by philosophers when referring to healthcare professions. I believe this virtue deserves a separate chapter, since, if consolidated, it addresses all other existing challenges and trials healthcare professions face.

The proposed title for this article speaks of “healthcare professions”, in the plural, which is a symptom of the complexity that currently surrounds the approach to the whole issue of illness. We are not only referring to medicine, nor even to medicine and nursing, but to the whole range of professions, occupations, tasks and activities that play a role in curing and caring for the ill [20]. Cooperation among all healthcare professionals is essential for two main reasons: knowledge is highly specialized, as I have mentioned previously, and professionals must take into account a new kind of patient. Patients nowadays are not only aware of their own autonomy, capacity and right to be informed, to express an opinion and to decide, but are also more active and demanding than ever before, and know their rights as a person and demand to be treated accordingly.

The new model of the patient is probably the most defining and the newest feature of the current concept of healthcare professions. This is due, above all, to the fundamental value given to individual freedom in liberal societies. However, this is not the only change healthcare professions must face. Another new feature is the value given to justice, equal opportunity, and non-discrimination, which imply a public healthcare system that must treat all members of society equally. The development of biomedicine, in turn, is generating great expectations, which should be addressed with prudence and common sense, not only because many of them call into question essential ethical principles but also due to the fact that scarcity of resources makes it impossible to address everything and, at the same time, protect the individual right to healthcare.

The more knowledge advances and technological possibilities increase, the more difficult it is to make decisions, foresee the consequences of such decisions and make them compatible with human rights. Such an arduous task requires the cooperation of all those involved, particularly of those professionals who are most familiar with the issues at hand.

Not to mention other changes, such as the aging population that has led to new concepts of illness and, in a way, requires us to complement the traditional concept of curing with one of caring. Only recently has our society admitted that taking care of dependants is to be considered a top priority. Recognition of this dependency, therefore, can in no case be seen as disrespect for basic human dignity. Finally, and without any intention of delving into all the new issues that must be faced, migratory movements also bring us in contact with concepts of medicine and nursing that are different from our own, force us to come to terms with the differences and accept different types of behavior. This in no way means, however, that we should renounce the fundamental principles and rights established in our Constitution.

So, all these changes reinforce the need for something that healthcare professions, at least in theory, have never doubted, although it doesn’t hurt to repeat it until it becomes a reality: The need to face the ethical and humanistic sensibility that must be a part of healthcare practice. At the heart of this change lies the need to accurately correct the paternalistic perspective that lasted for centuries. This correction should not be contractual but should focus on establishing a relationship based on trust. I don’t see trust as merely a virtue professionals must acquire; it is a value that the relationship between patients and healthcare professionals should be able to generate. For Jovell and Navarro [21] trust implies “competence and commitment”. Scientific and technical competence, of course, because patients basically want to be treated by a professional who knows what they are doing, but also a commitment on behalf of the professional to the patient’s welfare and best interest, which in itself implies a certain degree of altruism, solidarity and compassion, as well as respect and sincerity. The group of virtues, in short, discussed previously as the core of what has been called “patient-oriented professionalism”.

Professionalism and Citizenship. Self-Regulation

In the three dense chapters Durkheim devotes to “Professional Ethics” [22], he develops the theory, very much in line with his sociological thinking, that professional associations are essential as a source of solidarity and morality, in order to fight against the anomie that threatens liberal societies. Only collective power can legislate over the individual who, once free of social constrictions, also sheds any type of moral constriction. Thus, Durkheim conceives of professional morals as the prologue to civic morals, which go beyond personal or family morals. And he believes that professional ethics is possible, except in the case of a market economy, given that this activity has always been the bastion of liberty and is resilient to any sort of regulation, even that coming from its own agents.

The problem, however, is that the economy’s resistance to regulation has an effect on other professions insofar as these become ever more dependant on the economic industry and come to be seen as merely business. Healthcare is no exception, as shown by the language we use to refer to its workers: doctors and nurses are mere employees and patients are no longer the ill or patients, they are healthcare clients, users, or consumers. Albert Jovell refers to the “McDonaldization” of medicine and to the consequences that forcing the healthcare system to fit the mold of any other industry will have on adequately meeting patient needs and expectations.

The paternalism that has, so far, dominated clinical relationships, tends to be corrected and abandoned. But we are heading towards a contractual relationship, typical of a business-oriented model. By recognizing that patient autonomy is at the heart of healthcare ethics, we have moved the relationship between healthcare professionals and patients towards the commercial paradigm, when real progress would lie in building a fiduciary relationship, in which trust would be acknowledged as the ideal form of communication between professionals and patients.

The arena of healthcare protection is currently a complex network in which a variety of stakeholders play a role, in addition to those known as “healthcare professionals”. Management and research structures, the pharmaceutical industry, these multiple providers make up an organizational complex that cannot remain indifferent to the values and principles that ensure good professional practice.

This is the reason why the deontological codes that summarized professional obligations at the dawn of the bureaucratization of medicine are no more than a partial and insufficient expression of what professional excellence should be. Moreover, left to stand alone, deontological codes run the risk of being seen as an instrument for masking other interests. What used to be labeled “professional deontology”, which was set in codes of conduct written basically by professional associations, is now little more than a substitute for legislation, thus nurturing this type of responsibility which I believe we must overcome or compliment because is it merely legal.

Assuming professional responsibility is also a way of assuming the duties and obligations of citizenship. And this is one of the issues our liberal democracies have yet to address. Developing the aforementioned virtues, as qualities a professional must display, is part of taking responsibility for one’s own actions in a wider sense, beyond scientific and technical competence. Therefore, of all the virtues discussed, the most fundamental is still prudence, which I would call the “capacity for self-regulation”. If a person is unwilling to take in the true spirit of these virtues and apply them appropriately in each case, there is no law or deontological code that can make them do so.

This is exactly what Aristotle demanded from the prudent, meaning virtuous or excellent, politician, judge, or physician. A prudent person possesses the “practical wisdom” to understand what is best for the patient in each case, which is the only goal of healthcare professions. It is necessary thus to discuss the means, we said, as the goal is clear and undisputed. So, the prudent professional has acquired the ability, the experience, and the knowledge needed to discuss the means; they know how to do this.

Discussion implies dialog. The absence of dialog is also a shortcoming of our current democracies. I mentioned at the beginning the two objectives repeated in the first medical ethics texts, those by Hippocrates and Confucius. On one hand, patient welfare; on the other, cooperation with other professionals involved. The sense of community is essential because, in professional practice, not only personal reputation is at stake, but also that of the profession as a whole. One has a responsibility to oneself and to the profession and, of course, to the society one serves.

Hence, ethics has an inalienable public dimension, because, in the end, public interest should take precedence over personal and private, or even corporate, interests. And these considerations bring us to understand professional practice as an expression of citizenship. Being a citizen is more than voting and paying taxes. It is being a member of a community that shares common interests and which demands that its members make an effort, in line with their functions and abilities, to help achieve them. In this article, I have tried to show how professionalism should overcome its tendency towards technical, economic, and contractual reductionism. It must be civic-minded professionalism, one that serves the community.

Medicine should rethink its characterization of itself as simply a branch of applied science, which causes it to lose sight of the complexity of healing as a human practice that requires not just expert knowledge but the context of a dedicated professional community. W.M. Sullivan. “What is Left Of Professionalism After Managed Care?” [23]


Bibliographical References

[1]. Camps V. Virtudes públicas. Madrid: Espasa Calpe, 1990. Also  inCortina A. Profesionalidad in Cerezo Galán P (ed). Democracia y virtudes cívicas. Madrid: Biblioteca Nueva, 2005; 360-381.
[2]. Tratados Hipocráticos. Madrid: Alianza Editorial, 1996.
[3]. A Global Profession. Medical Values in China and the United States. Hastings Center Report. Special Supplement July-August 2000.
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