The expectation that physicians will provide competent care is central to medicine. It undergirds professional autonomy and the privilege of self-regulation granted by society. To this end, medical schools, residency and fellowship programs, specialty boards, and other health care organizations regularly assess physicians’ technical knowledge and skills.

However, as an ethical responsibility competence encompasses more than medical knowledge and skill. It requires physicians to understand that as a practical matter in the care of actual patients, competence is fluid and dependent on context. Each phase of a medical career, from medical school through retirement, carries its own implications for what a physician should know and be able to do to practice safely and to maintain effective relationships with patients and with colleagues. Physicians at all stages of their professional lives need to be able to recognize when they are and when they are not able to provide appropriate care for the patient in front of them or the patients in their practice as a whole.

To fulfill the ethical responsibility of competence, individual physicians and physicians in training should strive to:

  1. Cultivate continuous self-awareness and self-observation.
  2. Recognize that different points of transition in professional life can make different demands on competence.
  3. Take advantage of well-designed tools for self-assessment appropriate to their practice settings and patient populations.
  4. Seek feedback from peers and others.
  5. Be attentive to environmental and other factors that may compromise their ability to bring appropriate skills to the care of individual patients and act in the patient’s best interest.
  6. Maintain their own health, in collaboration with a personal physician, in keeping with ethics guidance on physician health and wellness.
  7. Intervene in a timely, appropriate, and compassionate manner when a colleague’s ability to practice safely is compromised by impairment, in keeping with ethics guidance on physician responsibilities to impaired colleagues.

Medicine as a profession should continue to refine mechanisms for assessing knowledge and skill and should develop meaningful opportunities for physicians and physicians in training to hone their ability to be self-reflective and attentive in the moment.

AMA Principles of Medical Ethics: I, VII, VII

Code of Medical Ethics: Physicians & the Health of the Community

Visit the Ethics main page to access additional Opinions, the Principles of Medical Ethics and more information about the Code of Medical Ethics.

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