Professional competency: How committed are you to improvement?

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Jul 01, 2003

The time has arrived when students graduating from colleges and schools of veterinary medicine take the Veterinarian's Oath. Do you recall taking this oath? It states in part, "Being admitted to the profession of veterinary medicine, I solemnly swear(to) accept as a lifelong obligation the continual improvement of my professional knowledge and competence."

Those who received their DVM or VMD degrees many years ago will likely agree that this ongoing promise encompasses considerable effort and therefore is more easily said than done. However, if we are sincere about our pledge of a lifelong commitment to improving our competence, won't you agree that it is important that we periodically reflect on our progress?

With this goal in mind, consider the following self-assessment questions.

The questions are not designed to measure a specific level of intellectual or technical competency. Rather, their intent is to help us evaluate the level of our personal commitment to remain professionally competent. Strive to answer each question in context of the Golden Rule, which states, "Do for others what you would have them do for you."

Assess yourself

1. Would I choose to follow the advice of a physician whose attitude about the importance of continuing to learn and whose desire to remain professionally competent were similar to mine?

2. In context of the welfare of my patients, what priority do I place on keeping current with new knowledge published in journals, textbooks and the Internet? How current are the textbooks in my hospital? How often do I read them? Have I learned that the next best thing to knowing something is knowing where to find it?

3. Do I have a strong desire to learn? Would I regularly attend continuing education seminars if there weren't a legal requirement to do so? Do I actively participate in these educational meetings? Am I eager to be taught what I don't know, recognizing that a post-graduate educational program is vital to continued growth in my knowledge, wisdom and understanding?

4. Am I at times over-confident in my abilities, or am I teachable (i.e. in addition to my own personal experiences, do I have a strong desire to continue to improve my competency by learning from the knowledge, experience, wisdom of others)? Do I recognize that (s)he who will not learn from anyone but him/herself may have a fool for a teacher? Whereas pride is often increased by ignorance and makes us prone to mistakes, humility will keep us from becoming overconfident and will help us to benefit from the counsel of others.

5. Am I striving to attain and apply a level of professional competence that would allow me to provide the quality of diagnostic evaluation and medical care that I would desire if I were among the patients in circumstances similar to those for whom I provide care? In other words, am I treating my patients as I would want to be treated?

6. If I, or a member of my family, faced a life-threatening illness, would I have confidence in the care of a physician with intellectual and technical competence comparable to mine?

7. Am I as committed to "learning a living" as I am to "earning a living"?

If we make an honest appraisal of ourselves in answering these questions, likely we all will find areas where we can improve. Why is this so important? Because the precious lives of our patients are dependent on our commitment to continually improve our knowledge and competence.

In contrast, the recipe for perpetual ignorance is to be content with our knowledge and satisfied with our opinions. To paraphrase Dr. Donald Low, we should strive to practice 30 to 40 years of veterinary medicine in our professional lifetimes rather than to repeat one year 30 to 40 times. In this context, we are ethically responsible not only for what we do, but also for what we don't do.

We should always remember that there are some patients that we cannot help, but there are none that we cannot harm. No patient should be worse for having seen the doctor. If we sustain our commitment to continuously improve our professional competence with the goal of offering the type of care for our patients that we would select for ourselves, it is clear that our primary motive for doing so is based on the Golden Rule. To this end, the fundamental principle that guides our actions should be the welfare of our patients first...and last.