Professionalism lapses and hierarchies: A qualitative analysis of medical students’ narrated acts of resistance

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Social Science and Medicine


Resistance is classified as a reaction against confining social structures. During their education, medical students encounter traditional medical and interprofessional hierarchies as they learn to become doctors. These create a power disparity that may prevent their empowerment and ability to resist. Despite their subordinate position, students are not always powerless when encountering situations that contradict their ethical, moral, and professional understandings of appropriate medical practice – so called ‘professionalism dilemmas.’ A qualitative analysis of over 1500 narratives from interviews, focus groups, and questionnaires with 808 medical students in the UK and Australia highlights how students draw on a number of direct and indirect, verbal and bodily, instantaneous and delayed forms of resistance to counter the professionalism lapses of their seniors, which they face in everyday clinical and educational interactions. Within students’ narratives of resistance we come to see how they resist hegemonic practices and their reasons for doing so, such as to prevent patient and student abuse, promote hygienic practice, and uphold patient consent. Through these various acts of resistance (and their narration), medical students may promote the subtle transformation of the dominant medical structure either consciously or unconsciously. They may do this through reflecting on acts of resistance to professionalism lapses, making sense of their moral position and the development of their professional identities, by encouraging others to also resist through sharing resistance narratives, and finally, by altering the professional conduct of their seniors. We encourage all workplace learning stakeholders to better understand the social dynamics of hierarchies and resistance and to encourage the enactment of resistance in the face of professionalism lapses in order to protect the health and wellbeing of learners and patients.

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