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"Professional Identity" and Interprofessional Collaboration

Continuing and Professional Development Blog

May 2017

It’s graduation season and after years of training, clinical assessments, and final exams, we have celebrated the passage of another group of health professionals’ entries into the next phase of their clinical growth and development as care providers and patient advocates; the various regalia colors: apricot, light blue, teal, hunter green, all symbols of the chosen professions into which these graduates are entering.

Recently, I have been thinking more about the concept of profession and professional identity.  How does professional identity relate to our educational and clinical development as healthcare teams composed of experts who come together across professions? How does interprofessional collaboration relate to “professional identity”? Can they coexist and if so, how?  What would that be called?  What would it look like to us and our patients and clients?

Khalili et al [Journal of Interprofessional Care; 2013;27(6)] reflects on the traditional definition of a professional as one who achieves specialized expertise, knowledge and skills; specialization that makes that person’s abilities distinct from others’ professional education and abilities. Specialization and distinctness in knowledge and ability are complemented by socialization and incorporation into a regulated and recognized “group”. Our uni-professional training and specialization usher us into a culture with others just like us. This is a celebratory achievement! 

Do we similarly celebrate the “team identity”? Patients and their families and communities need and expect us to not only have our individual specialized knowledge and abilities, but to have the shared skills of a team, with dual identities; perhaps an interprofessional identity.

In a study of health professions students in NSW, Australia [Mitchell et al: Human Relations; Sep 2011] the authors describe the tension that must be balanced between interprofessional socialization and perceived threats to professional identity. Both of these articles discuss the need to break down barriers to collaboration, including the perception that being an equal member of a successful team means losing one’s professional identity. 

Can we counter the anxiety of professional identity threat by celebrating the diversity of professional expertise and interprofessional collaboration that are characteristic of effective healthcare teams? Can we make team members’ attraction to the successful team a means of socialization that supports role-learning and mutual respect for what each of us brings individually to the shared team effort? 

I think our future as health professions educators and clinicians will rest on our abilities to celebrate uni-professional specialties that explicitly build and contribute to our high-functioning interprofessional teams; our dual identity development. What a colorful road to travel.