Integrity, Ethics and Professionalism

Ethical standards exist in every profession. Integrity is a key element of what every profession considers appropriate ethical behavior. In professional and/or business relationships, integrity is a much sought after trait. Certainly no physician would hire a coder lacking integrity, just as no patient would likely choose a physician lacking integrity. Similarly, coders appreciate working with co-workers and for employers who exhibit integrity.

Although it is not difficult to understand the importance of integrity in business relationships (as well as personal ones), it is sometimes difficult to determine what integrity actually is. Honesty, truthfulness, honor, dependability, and trustworthiness are all traits of those with integrity; as is upholding a moral standard of conduct in both professional and personal endeavors. Standards governing professional conduct include knowing how you present yourself, your work ethic, and how you communicate with others.

Integrity requires strong moral principles: good character, honor, and honesty. Honesty is fairly cut and dry, but "good character" and "honor" are more obtuse qualities. It may be easier to illustrate the concept of integrity through examples:

  • While on the clock at work, do you work diligently as your employer would expect, or do you take time out to conduct personal business? Employers expect employees to work the hours for which they are being compensated. Employees are not paid to socialize, surf the Internet, pay bills, update their Facebook status, etc. An employee with integrity will provide the level of effort his or her employer is paying for and will self-regulate work behavior. Employees acting with integrity resist the temptation to engage in non-work-related activities.
  • Do you cut corners and neglect workplace regulations? In healthcare, ignoring policies can lead to mistakes, noncompliance, and potentially life-threatening situations for patients. Taking shortcuts or seeking the easiest way to get through the day does not reflect a person with integrity.
  • Do you treat co-workers with respect? A person with integrity looks beyond his or her own interests and pursues team-centered goals. This requires polite and professional communication, appropriate interactions, and respect for the thoughts and opinions of co-workers. When disagreements arise (on coding, for example), do you objectively consider the position of your peers? Are you willing to be proved wrong? If the position of the other person is wrong, do you use the situation as an opportunity to educate or ridicule?

Integrity as a coding professional doesn’t end in the workplace. Consider these examples:

  • At a conference or chapter event, do you pay attention to the speaker and learn the concepts presented in exchange for the continuing education units (CEUs) you will claim? Competence is another important trait of professional behavior, and submitting CEUs should be based on your efforts to learn something. CEUs should not simply be an indicator of your presence at an educational event.
  • An issue impacting you arises in a blog or other social media forum. Are your comments constructive and solution-oriented, or are they purely negative? A person with integrity does not "tee off" in a public forum in a way that is disrespectful to the profession of coding, other coders, or to AAPC. Whether you disagree with an AAPC corporate decision or take issue with a forum post from another member, a person with integrity finds a way to express disagreement or dissatisfaction in a way that is not disrespectful or demeaning to others. A person with integrity also politely reminds others who have deviated from such standards that such conduct is inappropriate.
  • While attending an industry conference, your registration is mixed up and you do not get in the session you expected to attend. Do you berate the conference staff or do you exhibit integrity and professionally work with the individual helping you? As a similar example, if you regularly travel by air, you have likely been subject to flight cancellations. You may have observed a traveler screaming and berating the ticket agent or staff when this happens. The irate person isn’t considering that he or she is yelling at the only person that can help, and is making the situation worse for everyone.

While these examples will help you better understand the broad scope of circumstances requiring integrity, there is another dimension of this issue to consider. As part of a recent ethics committee inquiry, the following statement was made by the person being investigated to the person who was questioning the person’s conduct:

"You obviously have a high degree of integrity."

This statement begs the following question: Is integrity an all or nothing proposition or can people exhibit varying levels of integrity? If the latter, how often do you have to conform your conduct to the principles of integrity to be considered a "person of integrity?"

Is integrity like some diets where you get a cheat day? If you tell the truth most of the time does that make you truly honest? The answer to both questions is no because true integrity requires absolute adherence to an appropriate moral code and honesty requires a person always be truthful. This is a difficult standard of conduct; however, it is easier to meet than you may think. When faced with the choice of acting with integrity, you are often required to choose the harder right rather than the easier wrong. Your fellow professionals, especially those serving on the ethics committee, as well as most employers, recognize that no one is perfect. In real terms, this is a recognition that absolute integrity is something we can only strive to achieve. When you recognize lapses in judgement, how you react will ultimately define your character. In such circumstances, a person with integrity corrects the situation, learns from it, and accepts any associated penalty. Doing so will gain the respect of your co-workers and employers.

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