Healthcare Professionals

In today's medical centers and clinics, there is a dizzying array of healthcare professionals.

Behind every patient receiving medical care in a physician's office, clinic, or hospital are numerous other individuals--ranging from nursing assistants to physicians to computer technicians. This used to be done by far fewer people.

What has changed? Who are today's healthcare professionals?  What defines this term? And why do we need more of them? Let's discuss these very timely and engaging questions.

What is a Healthcare Professional Today?

If "healthcare professional" means the same thing as "health professional," then the definition in the U.S. Code easily applies It is a very inclusive list of professions. Take a look!

Among the types of healthcare professionals, the list includes are primary care providers, specialty physicians, nurses, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants.

It also includes:

  • clinical pharmacists,
  • community health workers,
  • the EMS workforce,
  • and alternative medicine providers.

This is in addition to those "representing" schools of medicine and various other healthcare professions. Other professions are also listed.

The idea here is to show that U.S. federal law does not list medical professions hierarchically or in an especially limiting way, at least not in this list.

As long as someone holds the proper credentials for a professional healthcare job, they are considered a professional . so they represented in the law's definition of "health professional."

How is This Reflected in Healthcare Practice?

Including so many professions when defining who is a health(care) professional speaks to a new, more collaborative approach to healthcare. It is one that, when done well, is better able to care for the whole patient.

Who (all) Specializes?

Not long ago, when you needed specialized medical care, you went to a specialist. That person would spend time discussing your condition and making treatment recommendations.

There were a lot fewer non-physician professionals who provided direct patient care in past decades than there are today.

Healthcare professional today are trained as nurse practitioners, physician assistants, diabetes educators, or other credentialed positions. They all offer patients highly specialized care, just a level below licensed physicians.

Nurse practitioners (and other positions requiring study beyond the R.N. or B.S.N level) seem uniquely well suited for holistic patient care. After all, they are grounded in the principles of nursing, not medicine.

Maybe a more holistic way of defining a healthcare professional is called for?

What is a Good Definition of "Professional" for Healthcare?

There is a definition of "professional" that applies well here--one that has to do with behavior and ethical standards. The Merriam Webster dictionary includes this among several definitions of the word "professional":

  • (1) : characterized by or conforming to the technical or ethical standards of a profession
  • (2) : exhibiting a courteous, conscientious, and generally businesslike manner in the workplace.

The definition is about a need to respect, care for, and support patients as people--through emotional and lifestyle needs in addition to those that are purely medical.

In well-managed and well-coordinated organizations, this would characterize professionals other than just medical doctors.

This type of organization is where innovations in healthcare take place.

But would the definition apply to all who are called "healthcare professionals"?

Perhaps the question is, should it apply to all healthcare professionals? Or are there ethical and professional standards that medical caregivers should be held accountable for?

If we tried to answer this, we might end up excluding all healthcare providers. Of course, there are extremes to be dealt with, but human behavior operates on a continuum--that's what makes us individual humans, not robots.

Factors Bearing on Healthcare Professionalism

Healthcare professionals face many challenges today. Trying to do their jobs diligently and with integrity can be hard.

We are concerned that external or structural factors — such as politics, cost-cutting measures, or corporate greed might mitigate the ability of healthcare professionals to use their best judgment when doing their jobs.

Various facets of the healthcare picture increasingly are outsourced to for-profit companies, especially HMOs. While some of these companies adhere to ethical standards, this is not as much of a guarantee as it would be if kept in-house.

Decisions made by healthcare staff at all levels have the potential to be coerced if they affect an outside company's bottom line.

And increasingly, aspects of patient care employ artificial intelligence (AI) — which, if not held in check by people, can go very wrong. As one healthcare consultant says it:

"No machine could ever supplant the intimacy and importance of a provider’s relationship with a patient... AI technologies can offer direction, but it’s providers who will need to assess and execute on what AI-driven solutions uncover."

Human professionals add value, although that value could be much better compensated if healthcare costs were kept at a reasonable level.

The Medical-Industrial Complex

Like its "cousin," the military-industrial complex," the medical-industrial complex is said to be thriving in a sort of false economy where taxpayers wind up footing the bill for exorbitantly overpriced goods and services.

Author David Black summarized in a 1983 book review (Paul Starr's book The Social Transformation of American Medicine) that:

"Science will become subservient to technology, which will become subservient to profits, which will be generated by political decisions, which will be influenced by corporate demands, which will rise out of a need to control the market ...

"Health will become merely a by product."

And according to a recent 60 Minutes story, "Our dysfunctional system combines the greed of capitalism with the corruption of socialism — the worst of both worlds. Companies raise prices to what the market will bear...

But since third-party payers — both public money and private insurance — grotesquely distort the market, companies charge exorbitant prices that a natural, normal market would never abide."

These quotations capture a frustration Americans still cling to as we seek consensus on a solution to making healthcare more affordable.

True healthcare professionals realize this and have their frustrations; the public debates parallel what can be simple everyday frustrations for them as they try to serve their patients.

What Does It Really Mean to Be a Healthcare Professional Today?

This is why we believe that true healthcare professionals are needed today more than ever before — not just healthcare employees or workers, but professionals in every sense of the word.

A true healthcare professional, according to what's been discussed here, is someone with the credentials deemed necessary for making critical decisions about patients' needs.

But this person also is an effective collaborator who understands the parameters of her or his knowledge and skills. This is also someone capable of making ethical and independent decisions, even in the face of structural pressures to do otherwise.

A healthcare professional is someone you want to have taking care of you and your loved ones. We need more of them!

Check out our blog to read about some of the important and fascinating work healthcare professionals do every day.