The word professional carries tremendous weight. It is a term that is used often, yet deeply misunderstood, taken for granted and rarely interrogated. It is also a term that carries incredible momentum for the cultural constructions it advances in terms of how we create, evaluate and communicate professionalism. Furthermore, the lines between professional and personal relationships in medicine are being challenged. Specifically these days, social networking sites are blurring the lines around what it means to be a professional.

As Joanne Shaw discussed in her article, A Reformation of Our Times in the BMJ last spring, the changing relationship between doctor and patient can be understood through the analogy of equating medical science with religion, where the “bible” is medical information, the technology is the internet, and the priests are the medical profession. She writes, “the internet has brought the canon of medical knowledge – previously accessible only in expensive textbooks, subscription journals, and libraries – into the hands and homes of ordinary people.”

Further, as many doctors already subscribe to these new principles, she highlights that many patients will continue to want a more traditional relationship with their doctors. Others yet will push for something different. For example, Dr. Sachin H. Jain, who in his second week of medical internship, received a “friend request” on Facebook from a woman whose baby he helped deliver. In his recent article about this challenge, Practicing Medicine in the Age of Facebook, in the New England Journal of Medicine he writes, “The anxiety I felt about crossing boundaries is an old problem in clinical medicine, but it has taken a different shape as it has migrated to this new medium.”

As seen in these discussions, health care providers are now required to navigate through an organizational field that is complex, multifaceted, and heavily contested as they tap dance between doctor as professional, doctor as manager, doctor as healer, doctor as friend and doctor as human being. These authors suggest that issues raised by social media are in many ways similar to issues that physicians and medical institutions have dealt with for generations. As Dr. Sachin H. Jain states, “Physicians, after all, are members of real-life communities and might be observed in public behaving in ways that are discordant with their professional personas. During medical training, the importance of maintaining professional distance — however much one desires to have a close, meaningful relationship with one’s patients — is taught by educators and reinforced by the use of beepers and paging services meant to shield physicians from their patients.”

These reformations and challenges are reminders that our theories and understandings of and about health care should consider not only the formal interactions with patients and providers, but should also attend to a physician’s personal growth and development, which is undoubtedly impacted by her of his career and training, and how that impacts their professional and personal relationships. With such a task, comes a commitment to understanding professionals and communicating professional identity and care in a way that enhances the quality of life – both professionally and personally – for all involved.

How is social media offering alternative paradigms for quality care, work life and education where you are?

Thanks to rajtantajtanmovement for the blurred images…

Carey Candrian