We need true professionals

The View From Taft
July 18, 2002

A bill filed in Congress seeks to increase the penalties for doctors who commit negligent errors in patient care.   This seems to be a reaction to the increasing number of publicized cases involving patients who have either died or been permanently harmed due to doctor errors.

Meanwhile, a new SEC rule requires auditors to report client companies who engage in material fraud or who fail to disclose financial losses.  No doubt, this is a reaction to the recent spate of accounting-related business scandals in the US involving a well-known auditing firm.

The above initiatives assume that if professionals are misbehaving, a proper remedy to protect the public interest is to toughen the rules.  While these efforts are laudable and timely, they simply will not suffice. Rules cannot ensure honorable behavior because loopholes in the letter of the law can always be discovered by technical experts who have no respect for the spirit of the law.  Some financial accountants, for example, will always be able to invent new ways to misrepresent earnings, evade taxes or hide debt.  And what should we do each time we spot such loopholes?  Do we plug them with more rules?  If we do this, we will soon be buried under the sheer weight of the endless rules we make.

And then there is the real problem of enforcing the rules.   How many Filipinos have the time and resources to pursue litigation?  More to the point, how many Filipinos are convinced that the justice system will adequately protect their interests versus a negligent and well-resourced professional?  Not that many, I believe.

And what about honest mistakes?  Won’t all these rules simply paralyze the most well-intentioned professionals from carrying out their work in a timely manner, using the best judgment they have at their disposal?  Doctors are already talking about “defensive medicine” or the practice of requiring additional – often expensive – tests for patients just to make sure that they haven’t missed anything.  Will the resulting delays serve the public interest or will they make access to professional service more costly and out of reach?

Rules aren’t enough.  In fact, they can even backfire and make the problem worse.   We need to supplement our rules with a more fundamental solution that attacks the root of the problem.  We need to strengthen the foundation of what it means to be a professional.

Let’s start with a basic question:  what is a professional?  In simple terms, a professional is a person who is certified for technical competence and is a member of a self-regulating group of fellow professionals who commit themselves to public service and are guided by a code of ethics.  Clearly, therefore, it is not enough to have a certification to be a professional.   A professional must possess both competence and character, the ingredients of trustworthiness.

What does the trustworthiness of professionals mean for everyday life?  When a doctor prescribes medicine, we trust that the medicine is necessary and effective for our health.  We do not worry that he or she prescribes it because a pharmaceutical company sponsored his or her latest overseas junket or golf sessions.   When we cross a bridge, we trust that the engineer who approved its design ensured its soundness and safety.   We do not worry that he or she got 3% of the contract price to approve the design.  Such is our trust of professionals and we scarcely have a choice.  We depend on their wisdom and technical expertise.   Daily life would grind to a halt if we had such worries.

When do professionals deserve to lose the trust of the public?   One way is when they become technically obsolete and fail to update themselves in the field in a way that serves the needs of their clients best.   Dentists, for example, should know about the latest advances in composite materials for repairing damaged teeth.  These materials are not only better cosmetically, they are often stronger and, in the long run, cheaper.   Lawyers should know how the latest developments in information technology can help them prepare a better defense for their clients.   An obsolete lawyer cannot be trusted to give the best possible defense for a client.

The second way professionals cease to be professionals is when they sacrifice the public interest for personal gain.  Conflicts of interest are the most common holes through which professionals can fall and lose public esteem.  People who give improper professional opinion for personal gain may still have the title but no longer be true professionals. 

Some who have achieved professional certification may assume that they deserve unlimited personal gain since they have spent so much effort and resources to gain their certification.   This is a fallacy of the highest order.  In the first place, society, through government, only grants a professional license to a person assuming that he or she is committed to social service.  Acquiring personal wealth as a result of professional practice, although rightfully deserved within limits, is incidental. First and foremost, a professional license is a symbol of trustworthiness – a signal to the public that a person can be entrusted with critical life matters.

When lawyers display their title and name prominently outside their office, they announce to the world, “Here I am, a professional, ready to serve.”  When doctors sign their name on every prescription, they announce to the world that a professional has carefully studied the prescription, which is for the patient’s good.   Auditing companies, when signing financial statements, attest that professionals have checked these statements and that these represent truly and fairly the financial status of a company.

The professionals’ most basic asset is their credibility.   Every time they give a verbal or written opinion, professionals put their name on the line, literally and figuratively.  They must, therefore, do everything to preserve this credibility. For if they lose this, they lose the very essence of their life’s work.  (In the case of professional drivers, I would heartily recommend that their names be prominently displayed outside their vehicles.  I can almost guarantee that their driving will improve immediately.  This is the equivalent of a signature for a professional driver, proclaiming to all that their passengers will arrive safe and sound. )

So how do we ensure a sound professional system?   First, we must strengthen the quality of certification training.  We must ensure that the soundest principles and techniques of practice are taught in schools.  We must also ensure that professional ethics is covered throughout the entire curriculum of the program, and not buried in one token course.  In other words, the training must imbue a person with a sense of mission.  A school for professionals should produce individuals who are prepared to make personal sacrifices to protect the public interest.

Secondly, we must strengthen the profession’s system of self-regulation.   We must give every incentive for professional associations and regulatory boards to promote the continuous updating of practitioners and to educate the public on the importance of the certification status of its members.

Let us bring back honor to professionals.   Let us admire them not because they may have the trappings of financial success, prestige or power, but because they are competent and trustworthy persons who will look out for our welfare; role models for our children; representatives of our noblest aspirations and, therefore, deserving of our respect.

Dr. Benito Teehankee is the Jose E. Cuisia Professor of Business Ethics at De La Salle University.  benito.teehankee@dlsu.edu.ph