Student Corner: Reflections on professionalism

A new elective available to Baylor medical students allows them to explore the connection between professionalism and the development of trust and respect among members of the healthcare team and patients.

Called “The Professionalism Platform: Facilitating the Journey from Medical Student to Physician,” the preclinical elective was developed by Dr. Ellen Friedman, director of the Center for Professionalism at Baylor and professor of otolaryngology, Dr. Imelda Tija, associate professor of pediatrics at Baylor and Texas Children’s, and Dr. Alicia Kowalski of MD Anderson.

The eight-week curriculum includes modules on topics such as patient outcomes, patient satisfaction and collegiality, appreciate and gratitude in practice, communication, empathy and compassion, and more.

“We have already had one small group of students participate in the elective, and their feedback was extremely positive,” Friedman said. “We look forward to having more students in the elective so we can introduce the practice of professionalism.”

Two students who took the elective share their experiences below.

Cort Wernz
Second-year medical student

“After having spent a few years working in corporate finance prior to medical school, one social phenomenon relevant to professionalism that really stood out to me was this concept of ‘emotional contagion.’ Emotional contagion refers to ‘the process in which an observed behavior in one individual leads to the reflexive production of the same behavior by other individuals in close proximity, with the likely outcome of converging emotionally.’

Speaking from personal experience, I have witnessed first-hand both the positive and negative effects that social contagion can have on morale in the workplace. Social contagion doesn’t have to originate from the top – it can also come from a team member or patient/client.

The literature suggests that social contagion can have ramifications that go beyond creating a positive or negative work environment. One study looking at COVID-19 response effectiveness in hospitals in Italy and the US found that contagions of anger/aggression ‘interfere with mental functioning and enable inappropriate behavior such as safety violations’ while contagions of joy lead to ‘optimal operating conditions and constructive activity” that can ultimately “present safety related moral disengagement.’ Another study looking at sleep disturbances among health care employees in Italy found that the contagion of anger was positively correlated with both sleep disturbances and workplace accidents and injuries, while the contagion of joy was associated with fewer sleep disturbances and accidents/injuries.

I recently completed a new elective for medical students called The Professionalism Platform. Although many of the modules in the course touched on topics that are relevant to social contagion, I found the module on empathy and compassion to be particularly important. The “Threads Among Us” video we watched in class was a great illustration of how social contagion works, and the power it has for both good and bad outcomes in the workplace. In many ways, I think empathy and compassion are almost prerequisites to positive social contagion. Unlike social contagion, which is somewhat of an unconscious and reflexive process, empathy and compassion seem to require more conscious awareness – both of what you are feeling/experiencing, and what others are feeling/experiencing. Empathy and compassion are two skills that I intend on investing heavily in as I continue down this career path. 

Kush Maheshwari
Second-year medical student

“The simple essence of professionalism is mutual respect. While this simple explanation may seem to belie the complexity most people associate with professionalism, allow me a chance to explain. Professionalism is simply that which results in a positive interaction that is beneficial to both parties.

The obvious question becomes then, how can we practice medicine without striving to understand the most important form of caring there is: human interaction? An entire book can be devoted to the tenants of professionalism, or the litany of ways it can be cultured. However, after taking the professionalism elective course at Baylor, I can quite frankly say that it was some of the most valuable extracurricular education I have obtained in my (brief) life.

I learned that although medicine has often been hierarchical, the perceived power differential between learner and master, or between members of the medical staff, often lead to disillusionment, failure to develop meaningful relationships, and ultimately a reduction in the quality of patient care. One who is skeptical might ascertain that this is merely a supposition. I politely ask those to consider the butterfly effect. This is a physical principle that states changes in the state of a system can have multiple downstream effects that are relatively large in magnitude compared to the predisposing event. And thus, greeting the janitor who maintains a sanitary patient waiting room critical for patients, or simply thanking the student who follows an attending on rounds can have downstream effects that result in greater overall kindness, reduced workplace stress, willingness to address issues when they occur, and as a result better patient care.

I encourage other Baylor medical students to take the professionalism elective and vicariously experience the incredible stories that the incredible physicians who run the elective share. And after reading this entire post, you still have any doubt of professionalisms place in medicine I will end with a quote that I always remember, ‘People will forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.’”