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Professional identities

In their journey towards becoming healthcare professionals, students develop a range of beliefs and attitudes about the professions for which they are preparing themselves. They develop an understanding about the boundaries of their profession, and the ways in which they may interact with others as part of an interprofessional healthcare team. These sets of beliefs, attitudes and understanding about their roles, within the context of work, generally refer to their ‘professional identity’ (Adams et al., 2006; Lingard et al., 2002).

Professional identity formation:

  • can be framed within the context of social identity
  • is a systematic way of evaluating, identifying and organising the perception of self (Erikson, 1968)
  • concerns group interactions in the workplace and relates to how people compare and differentiate themselves from other professional groups
  • helps students to gain a realistic view of the profession
  • consists of exploring the available alternatives and committing to some choices and goals; students are seen as active participants in the formation of their professional identity (Niemi, 1997).

Social identity theory suggests that the attitudes and behaviours of members of one professional healthcare group towards another are governed by the strength and relevance of the members’ social identity (Tajfel and Turner, 2001; Turner, 1999).

Healthcare teams have been described as the centre of both the clinical education of new healthcare professionals and patient care (Lingard et al., 2002). The discourse that team members engage in (the verbal and non–verbal communication that they engage in during the course of both activities) is a key way in which new health professionals are socialised into teams (Sinclair, 1997; Haber and Lingard, 2001). During early participation, they obtain gradual responsibility and supervised involvement within the field, developing an overview of their profession, and an understanding of professional goals, values and limitations. 

Challenges associated with professional identity formation

  • When confronted by contradictory and ambiguous situations and experiences, individuals engage in self-reflection and questioning of the personal view; identity is reshaped as a result (Niemi, 1997).
  • Professional identity is constructed through discourse between individuals, and identities are continually being constructed and altered (Bleakley, 2004). 
  • Power processes in team-based work are processes of meaning and identity formation (Bleakley, 2004). These induce the team members to consent to dominant organisational views even if these pose potential disadvantages (Dooreward and Brouns, 2003).

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