Journal of General Internal Medicine

, Volume 25, Issue 12, pp 1330–1336 | Cite as

Medical Professionalism: Conflicting Values for Tomorrow's Doctors

  • Erica BorgstromEmail author
  • Simon Cohn
  • Stephen Barclay
Original Research



New values and practices associated with medical professionalism have created an increased interest in the concept. In the United Kingdom, it is a current concern in medical education and in the development of doctor appraisal and revalidation.


To investigate how final year medical students experience and interpret new values of professionalism as they emerge in relation to confronting dying patients and as they potentially conflict with older values that emerge through hidden dimensions of the curriculum.


Qualitative study using interpretative discourse analysis of anonymized student reflective portfolios. One hundred twenty-three final year undergraduate medical students (64 male and 59 female) from the University of Cambridge School of Clinical Medicine supplied 116 portfolios from general practice and 118 from hospital settings about patients receiving palliative or end of life care.


Professional values were prevalent in all the portfolios. Students emphasised patient-centered, holistic care, synonymous with a more contemporary idea of professionalism, in conjunction with values associated with the ‘old’ model of professionalism that had not be directly taught to them. Integrating ‘new’ professional values was at times problematic. Three main areas of potential conflict were identified: ethical considerations, doctor-patient interaction and subjective boundaries. Students explicitly and implicitly discussed several tensions and described strategies to resolve them.


The conflicts outlined arise from the mix of values associated with different models of professionalism. Analysis indicates that ‘new’ models are not simply replacing existing elements. Whilst this analysis is of accounts from students within one UK medical school, the experience of conflict between different notions of professionalism and the three broad domains in which this conflict arises are relevant in other areas of medicine and in different national contexts.


medical professionalism medical education qualitative research students’ reflections 



The authors would like to thank the students who gave their consent for their portfolios to be in this study. We are grateful to the students and other colleagues who have provided feedback on previous drafts, including Diana F. Wood, John Benson, Thelma Quince and James Brimicombe. We further thank the James Knott Family Trust for funding this research, with additional funding from the General Practice and Primary Care Research Unit at the University of Cambridge.

Conflict of Interest

None disclosed.

Ethical Approval

The study was approved by the ethical committee of the University of Cambridge Psychology Research Ethics committee. All participants signed an informed consent form.


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Copyright information

© Society of General Internal Medicine 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.General Practice and Primary Care Research UnitUniversity of CambridgeCambridgeUK

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