How Professionalism Class Taught Me to Be Unprofessional

Professionalism class gotta be one of the most useless class in medical school.

A guy pretty much lectures the class from the front of the room. He tells us some stories — some which are pretty shocking. A doctor goes around killing his patients. And when he gets caught, he merely goes to another state and resume his killing spree. Another doctor does cardiac bypass surgery on patients who do not need it, just to make more money. UMDNJ broke federal law and paid kickbacks to doctors who referred patients.

Does Professionalism Class Turn You into a Professional?

Those were some nice stories. But does listening to stories make someone more moral? Does writing an essay on professionalism make a would-be doctor more professional? Can you teach someone how to be ethical?

I think not. If you see what really goes on in the hospital, you’ll agree with me too.

First, most people have a pretty good idea of what’s right and wrong. Obviously, intentionally killing patients is bad. Most people also know that breaking laws can result in consequences. (This useless class should really be replaced with medical law class. At least the latter is useful. If you wanna get good at the game, you gotta first know the rules. Then you gotta know how much you can bend the rules.)

Second, a class does not make a person more professional and ethical. If that is the case, why do we need prisons? Just have criminals and their ilk go to classes. And if they graduate, they would turn into law-abiding citizens … right? I got another great idea that would just about eradicate obesity. Why not just educate all those fat people? If only people know enough, they won’t give into the good-tasting-but-extremely-fattening food. They would also exercise every single day!

This reminds me of something I have read on The Culture Code:

Years ago, Tufts University invited me to lecture during a symposium on obesity …

Lecturer after lecturer offered solutions for America’s obesity problem, all of which revolved around education. Americans would be thinner if only they knew about good nutrition and the benefits of exercise, they told us. Slimming down the entire country was possible through an aggressive public awareness campaign …

When it was my turn to speak, I couldn’t help beginning with an observation. “I think it is fascinating that the other speakers today have suggested that education is the answer to our country’s obesity problem,” I said. I slowly gestured around the room. “If education is the answer, then why hasn’t it helped more of you?”

There were audible gasps in the auditorium when I said this, quite a few snickers, and five times as many sneers. Unsurprisingly, Tufts never invited me to lecture again.

Anyone who has a dose of the real world (basically, anyone who has a life out of academia) knows that education is not always the answer. No one can teach you how to be ethical. You have to make the decision to follow your moral compass or not.

I’ll tell you why we have professionalism class. It is a CYA measure — cover your ass. It is a legal maneuver for medical schools. If a doctor gets caught doing something bad (and trust me, it happens every single year), the schools can dust their hands and say, “Don’t look at us. We held a class that taught professionalism. So it wasn’t our fault. And don’t sue us please.”

Why do you think Harvard Business School and other top US business schools teach ethics. Sure, they want their graduates to do good. But more than that … when the next financial maverick blows up the economy (like what happened in 2008), they want to say, “Don’t look at us. We held a class that taught ethics. So it wasn’t our fault. And don’t sue us please.”

So yes, our hard-earned money goes toward covering our schools’ behind.

What I Have Learned in Professionalism Class

Alright, I don’t want to be a negative Nelly. And I like to look at the silver lining in the clouds. I did learn something from professionalism class. (I could hear you gasp right about now.) It is true. I learned something.

However, it is not what you may expect. I did not learn how to be professional. Instead, I learned how to be unprofessional. DUN-DUN-DUUUUN … I’m gonna teach you exactly how you can be unprofessional. And pay attention closely, because if you choose to use this dark secret, you’ll get far in life — even if you’re at the bottom of your class.

It was during this course that I read a legendary, scientific article, The High Cost of Free Lunch. It tells you how pharmaceutical sales reps work. It tells you how they can persuade a doctor to prescribe more of their drugs. It tells you the secrets to how pharmaceutical companies increase their sales. (I highly recommend you download and read it.)

If you do not have time to read through 5 a measly pages, the premise of the article is:

Most physicians deny their professional integrity can be “bought” by something as trivial as a cup of coffee or a free lunch. In this paper, we review the social science literature arguing that “gifting” physicians in this way is, in fact, a highly successful method of boosting drug sales.

Even small gifts produce in their recipients a disproportionately powerful willingness to reciprocate in some manner.

It then tells doctors that “prescribing habits should be based upon careful consideration of what medication is really in the patient’s best clinical interests, not on who most recently provided the doctor with a free lunch.” (Blah, blah, blah … it’s like educating a fat person to exercise more and to eat less. It sounds good in theory, but doesn’t work in the real world.)

After reading through the article, or even just by reading through the above synopsis, I have a pop quiz for you (because I know how much you love pop quizzes). What did I learn? If you’re not sure, take a guess …

I have learned that …

Doctors are humans. They can be bought.

Actually, this dark secret could be applied to anyone. Doctors, teachers, politicians, cops, etc. If you live by this idea — that anyone can be bought — I guarantee that you’ll get far in life, even if you’re at the bottom of the class.

Your classmates would strive to bust their little behinds to outshine you, to make themselves look smart. But once you offer some way to make people’s lives better, whether it is through money, respect, sex, connections, or whatever (the sales reps did it through coffee, of all things) … you will outshine those gunners with 1/10 of the effort.

Who cares if gunner girl knows the molecular weight of beta-HCG? I don’t care. I doubt you care. The doctor certainly doesn’t care. (If I really wanted to, I can find out though Google in about 5 seconds. However, I don’t care enough to waste 5 seconds of my life on nonsense.) But if you can “buy” the doctors somehow, or whoever is in charge, you’ll get far.

I easily got a rotation spot in ophthalmology during my fourth year. I did not go through VSAS (Visiting Student Application Service). I did not have to pay money out of my own pocket to be considered. When I asked the doctor if other students rotated through there, he said no. But I knew people who could hook me up. I “bought” my way in, through my connections. Heck, I don’t even want to do ophthalmology.

I got all of my away rotations (dermatology, orthopedics, and other spots that my peers would kill to get into) through connections and God. Other people could fight their way in through the front door. I got in through the back door — VIP style, baby.

I bet they don’t teach you these things in medical school … Oh wait, I think they did. You just gotta be “professional.”

For more medical school stories, visit the About Alex section and look for “Blast from the Past (Stories of My Medical School Days).”


  1. Hi, first of all, i would just like to say that I really enjoy reading your posts, it is by chance that i found your website, while navigating aimlessly on the net to distract myself from my studying (will be doing my mcat next week). Anyhow, your stories are really funny. Just out of curiosity for this one, how did you manage to use “the back door” to get all your desired residency placements, through contacts only? no free lunch or fetching coffee tasks? :p


  2. Hey Alex, I was wondering if there was any way I could pick your brain about the idea of professionalism. I’m interested in writing a story about it (I’m a journalist), but I haven’t heard a lot of push-back against classes for professionalism, so your insights could be really great for my story. Is there any way we could connect via email or over the phone?


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