Doctors conferring at a table.

Is there a doctor on this flight? Professional identity formation for medical professionals

  • Education
  • Research

We’ve all seen countless riffs and jokes centred on the call ‘Is there a doctor on this flight?’, but it speaks to the heart of a serious matter: being a medical professional is part of a person’s identity. And doctors carry this identity with them every day. But forming that professional identity isn’t always so straightforward.

Now, however, new work and research from RCSI faculty Dr Áine Ryan, Professor Frank Doyle and others is helping medical students to understand the roles, responsibilities, values and ethical standards they will be taking on. Their work is published in two research papers, the first looking at their methodology and early results, and the second examining if professionalism, leadership and resilience combine for professional identity formation.  

Dr Ryan and Professor Doyle’s research aimed to assess professional identity formation (PIF), professionalism, leadership and resilience (PILLAR) in the junior years of medical school.  

It’s all part of a renewed focus at RCSI on ensuring that medical students are supported in their professional identity development.  

It acknowledges, too, that students do not arrive at medical school with a full complement of professional behaviours, needing only to learn medical knowledge and skills: they need to learn how to become a doctor.  

A professional identity, inevitably, influences how a doctor perceives, explains, presents and conducts themselves – and how they define and understand their own role relative to their colleagues. Research also shows that PIF has been important in advancing practice transformation. And, indeed, most complaints against doctors are because of their conduct, not their competence, highlighting the importance of this area.  

In their work, the research team focused on: 

  • Quantitative assessment of students' PIF, professionalism, leadership and resilience
  • Looking at potential progression in each area as students progress through medical school
  • Investigating the contributions of professionalism, leadership and resilience towards informing PIF  

PIF is an important component of the new personal and professional identity programme, which is one of the core pillars of RCSI’s new medical curriculum, alongside medical knowledge and clinical skills.  

It is integrated into learning throughout the entire curriculum and into each module. 

Forming this professional identity involves multiple learning activities, including tutorials where students reflect on positive outcomes, drawing from their own personal and academic experiences of times where they have coped with adversity in the past. Peer learning is a vital part of the process, with students sharing their own stories as a way of supporting one another.  

Medicine can be a challenging job, so the priority is for students to develop leadership and resilience skills alongside a focus on professionalism. 

Students also learn to advocate for themselves and their future patients, using evidence-based practice, self-care, and learning from scenarios and case studies.  

They engage in self-reflection and focus on the nuances and complications of cases. Students are also assessed via reflection assignments with various PIF themes. 

Since the research commenced in 2020, the research team, which has members from both the RCSI Centre for Professionalism in Medicine and Health Sciences and Department of Health Psychology, School of Population Health is measuring and testing the progress of the work, with the aim of having a much-needed quantitative assessment of progress in this important area. 

To date, students have fed back that developing a professional identity, and being assessed on it, has been helpful.  

Visit our undergraduate medicine page to find out more about our curriculum.

RCSI is committed to achieving a better and more sustainable future through the UN Sustainable Development Goals.