Context: Despite a growing and influential literature, 'professionalism' remains conceptually unclear. A recent review identified three discourses of professionalism in the literature: the individual; the interpersonal, and the societal-institutional. Although all have credibility and empirical support, there are tensions among them.
Objectives: This paper considers how these discourses reflect the views of professionalism as they are expressed by students and educator-practitioners in three health care professions, and their implications for education.
Methods: Twenty focus groups were carried out with 112 participants, comprising trainee and educator paramedics, occupational therapists and podiatrists. The focus group discussions addressed participants' definitions of professionalism, the sources of their perceptions, examples of professional and unprofessional behaviour, and the point at which participants felt one became 'a professional'.
Results: Analysis found views of professionalism were complex, and varied within and between the professional groups. Participants' descriptions of professionalism related to the three discourses. Individual references were to beliefs or fundamental values formed early in life, and to professional identity, with professionalism as an aspect of the self. Interpersonal references indicated the definition of 'professional' behaviour is dependent on contextual factors, with the meta-skill of selecting an appropriate approach being fundamental. Societal-institutional references related to societal expectations, to organisational cultures (including management support), and to local work-group norms. These different views overlapped and combined in different ways, creating a complex picture of professionalism as something highly individual, but constrained or enabled by context. Professionalism is grown, not made.
Conclusions: The conceptual complexity identified in the findings suggests that the use of 'professionalism' as a descriptor, despite its vernacular accessibility, may be problematic in educational applications in which greater precision is necessary. It may be better to assume that 'professionalism' as a discrete construct does not exist per se, and to focus instead on specific skills, including the ability to identify appropriate behaviour, and the organisational requirements necessary to support those skills.