J Med Ethics 36:250-254 doi:10.1136/jme.2009.035121
  • Teaching and learning ethics

Towards a practical definition of professional behaviour

  1. Angela Ballantyne2
  1. 1Department of Philosophy, Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia
  2. 2Department of Primary Health Care & General Practice, University of Otago, Wellington, New Zealand
  1. Correspondence to Dr Angela Ballantyne, Department of Primary Health Care & General Practice, University of Otago, PO Box 7343, Wellington South 6242, New Zealand; angela.ballantyne{at}
  1. Contributors WR conceptualised the research project, gathered the complaints data from the Medical Board in South Australia, developed the complaints classification table for organising the Medical Board data, determined the research goals and designed the outline of the paper, reviewed and edited the final manuscript. AB performed the literature review, drafted the initial manuscript and contributed to revisions of the final manuscript.

  • Received 21 December 2009
  • Accepted 28 January 2010


Context Professionalism remains a challenging part of the medical curriculum to define, teach and evaluate. We suggest that one way to meet these challenges is to clarify the definition of professionalism and distinguish this from medical ethics.

Methods Our analysis is two staged. First, we reviewed influential definitions of professionalism and separated elements relating to (a) ethico-legal competencies, (b) clinical competence and (c) professionalism. In reference to professionalism, we then distinguished between aspirational virtues/values and specific behaviours. From these, we develop a working definition of medical professional behaviour consisting of six domains of behaviour: responsibility; relationships with and respect for patients; probity and honesty; self awareness and capacity for reflection; collaboration and team work; and care of colleagues. Second, we tested this working definition against empirical data concerning disciplinary action against practising doctors using (a) sources in the literature and (b) an original analysis of complaints received by the Medical Board of South Australia.

Conclusion Our empirical analysis supports the relevance of four of the six potential domains: responsibility; relationships with and respect for patients; probity and honesty; self awareness and capacity for reflection. There are additional reasons for retaining ‘collaboration and team work’ in the medical professional behaviour curriculum but ‘care of colleagues’ may be better addressed in the ethico-legal curriculum. Our definition of professional behaviour is consistent with the theoretical literature, captures behaviours that predict future complaints against practitioners and is consistent with current complaints about professionalism in South Australian practitioners. This definition can further the teaching and assessing of professional behaviour in medical schools.


  • Funding This research project was funded by monies awarded to Wendy Rogers for an Australian Carrick Teaching Award (2007) for excellence in medical ethics education at Flinders University. Information regarding the award is available at

  • Competing interests None.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.