Council on Medical Student Education in Pediatrics


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COMSEP Meeting in Ottawa, ON

Platform Presentation:

Definition of Professionalism: A Continuum of Experience

Virginia F. Randall, MD MPH, Pediatrics, USUHS, Frederick, MD, Gary D. Crouch, MD, Anne B. Warwick, MD, Pediatrics, Cara Olsen, Dr.P.H., Preventive Medicine and Biometrics, USUHS, Bethesda, MD


            The evolution of a sense of professionalism among medical students and physicians is not well understood, although much attention is focused on promoting this ideal. There is, however, no consensus on what constitutes medical professionalism. Our hypothesis is that this definition, being developmental, will evolve in a professional’s lifetime and that more experienced professionals will have a definition that reflects their unique understanding, and which differs from that of their younger colleagues and medical students.


Research Question

            How is professionalism defined among COMSEP members and faculty and students at a medical school?



            After IRB approval, a question was added to the COMSEP survey asking participants to list the three most important descriptors of professionalism using free text. The responses were analyzed by two researchers using the grounded theory approach of qualitative analysis. Each researcher coded the responses independently. The two sets of coding were compared and discussed by the researchers until consensus was reached. The researchers then grouped the codes into themes, which were discussed until consensus was reached.

            After IRB approval, the same question was asked in an email survey of students and faculty at this medical school. The results were analyzed using qualitative analysis as above, ignoring the prior coding.



            184 COMSEP surveys and 269 medical school surveys were returned. The COMSEP data included 26 themes. Subsequently, the medical school survey was analyzed, producing themes that were somewhat different conceptually, condensing many from the COMSEP survey. The COMSEP themes were re-sorted to allow direct comparison. When sorted for experience level, there was a difference in themes that could be described in a word cloud for the qualitative analysis and which reached statistical significance.



            There is a continuum of definitions of medical professionalism that changes as practitioners mature based on this cross section of medical professionals. As faculty, we need to be aware that students may not have the same definition of professionalism as we do, and be prepared to discuss and model attributes of professionalism held by the more experienced faculty.