ABMS Approves Professional Conduct Policy

On September 9, 2022

Professionalism is a shared value across the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS) Member Boards and a core element of ABMS board certification. To preserve the trustworthiness of the credential, the ABMS Board of Directors recently approved its Policy on Professional Conduct.

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Christopher R. Thomas, MD

“The ABMS Policy on Professional Conduct is a recognition of the importance of professionalism in medical practice,” stated Christopher R. Thomas, MD, Immediate Past Chair of the ABMS Ethics and Professionalism Committee (EPCOM). Still anchored by a requirement that state licenses be discipline-free, the new policy sharpens its focus on protecting patient safety and the trustworthiness of the credential.

Approved at the ABMS Board of Directors’ meeting this past June, the policy enables the Member Boards to review their current professionalism policies and frame them in a way to make independent judgments regarding professional misconduct beyond that leading to adverse licensure actions. Boards may choose not to take action in response to state discipline if they believe that it does not reflect a risk to patient safety or physician trust. Conversely, boards are empowered to take independent action in the absence of state discipline on conduct related to or outside of patient care relationships that they believe pose a risk of patient harm or threat to the trustworthiness of certification.

This policy draws attention to the variety of ways that state medical boards define a medical license and the actions on a license that the Member Boards must consider, explained Dr. Thomas, who is also the Robert L. Stubblefield Professor of Child Psychiatry and Director of Child Psychiatry Residency Training at the University of Texas Medical Branch. Thus, it serves to reaffirm that certification by a Member Board is an independent professional judgment that a board certified physician has demonstrated the professionalism required for ABMS board certification.

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Tara Montgomery

From the patients’ perspective, this policy raises the level of accountability of the profession and demonstrates that professionalism is integral to the identity and performance of doctors, stated Tara Montgomery, a Public Member serving on both the ABMS Board of Directors and EPCOM. “It shows that ABMS is not just speaking about professional self-regulation and professionalism but is a steward of them in practice. ABMS is taking steps to ensure that professionalism, and board certification, represent expertise and trustworthiness,” added Montgomery, who is also the Founder and Principal of Civic Health Partners. Professional conduct is also a driver for patient safety, she said.

As Montgomery learned from research that she recently conducted, trust in the medical profession requires clinicians to demonstrate a set of professional behaviors that contribute to values patients care about such as ethics, empathy, equity, and respect. “For so long, professionalism was considered a character trait; something that a physician either has or doesn’t have,” Dr. Thomas said. “But it’s really a set of skills, behaviors, and attitudes that can be learned and improved. Even physicians who are considered very professional by their peers and patients can do something to improve their behaviors and actions that will inspire trust by their colleagues and patients,” he added.

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Furthermore, research conducted in the past 20 years recognizes that disciplinary actions against practicing physicians are associated with prior unprofessional behavior in medical school, Dr. Thomas noted. Additionally, medical schools and graduate medical education programs have only recently started to emphasize professionalism and professional development in their curriculum. “It’s important to bring all physicians up to date in recognizing that professionalism is an important part of their work and career,” he said. Through this policy, ABMS and its Member Boards are doing just that.

The ABMS Policy on Professional Conduct requires all 24 Member Boards to:

  • have their own professional conduct policies;
  • verify that board certified physicians are meeting professional norms;
  • review information about actions made by other regulatory, governing, and credentialing bodies;
  • render an independent judgment about professional misconduct on a case-by-case basis;
  • provide board certified physicians with due process; and
  • communicate certification actions related to professional misconduct.

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