Being ‘above bad’ isn’t good enough – we must strive for excellence in health care education

The NHS is regularly in the news for the pressure that it’s under. People are living longer, staff and resources are stretched, and the standard of care we expect is understandably and continually high.

Providing the workforce for an unknown and constantly changing future is a huge challenge. There are clear minimum standards of professionalism that clinicians are expected to meet to be ‘fit to practice’, but are these enough on their own? By ticking a box in professionalism, are we furnishing our future clinicians with the attributes that they need to best serve their patients and our society?

We all feel we know ‘professional’ when we see it – but we also know that on another day, in a different mood and in a different setting we may feel differently about exactly the same behaviour, conversation or attitude. Professionalism is one of those words that everyone can define, but for which definitions vary greatly, and it’s a challenging part of teaching and learning.

For some people, professionalism is about being ‘good enough to pass muster’, but for us at the University of Plymouth, it’s about being better than good; it’s about striving for excellence for the best patient care and practice.

I am one of two academics at the University leading the UK cause for the education of professionalism in healthcare.

Professor Hilary Neve and I are past chair and chair respectively of the national UK Councils for the Teaching of Professionalism, I for dentistry and Hilary for medicine.

Professor Neve is a Professor in Medical Education and having identified the need to promote professionalism within the medical training sphere, she took over the UK Council for Teachers in Professionalism as Co-Chair from 2014-2017, doubling its membership to include all 33 UK medical schools and forging links with the GMC. The Council provides a forum for professionalism leads to share expertise, ideas and resources and advise on national guidance.

Inspired by Professor Neve and spotting the need to do something similar in dentistry, I set up the dental equivalent – the UK Council of the Dental Teachers of Professionalism. The Council is the home for the education of professionalism across dental education in undergraduate and postgraduate arenas. It shares best practice in professionalism across the UK and helps shape the clinicians of the future. 

Back in Plymouth, I lead my team of academic tutors to support every student to become the very best dental professional they can be; from championing work in ‘patients as educators’, to continually advocating feedback strategies to improve, and with an emphasis on each person as an individual.

In addition, I work on capability – focusing on how we manage the areas of performance that are more challenging to assess. Capability includes the more personal and individual qualities that patients or clinicians perceive. It comprises elements of professionalism; communication; leadership; being able to work with others; individual self-management; complex decision making and problem solving; and being trustworthy to care for patients. In short, it is bringing humanity and care into the technical and scientific world of medical and dental clinical practice.

Education for capability and excellence in professionalism supports students to provide holistic, thoughtful and personalised care to their patients. It is not easy, but anything worthwhile and important is rarely easy.

We absolutely need to prepare the workforce of the future for the uncertain and varied landscape in which they’ll be operating. But for themselves, and for the good of our patients, we need to make sure professionalism is at the forefront of it all.


One of 900 elite academics

Sally Hanks has recently become one of just 900 elite academics worldwide to attain a Principal Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy (HEA).

More about Sally Hanks and her work

Dental teaching gets 100 per cent approval from students

100 per cent of dental students were satisfied overall with the quality of their course at the University of Plymouth, according to the 2018 National Student Survey.

Find out more about studying at Peninsula Dental School