Professional courtesy generally refers to a philosophy of particular professional behavior or etiquette which is extended between members of the same profession. The concept of professional courtesy is believed to have originated within the ancient practice of medicine by where physicians provided services to other physicians without charge. However, the philosophy does not necessarily involve the same courtesy across all professions. Nor is professional courtesy a mandated privilege, but is freely given at the discretion of the party extending the courtesy.
While the etiquette is not limited to physicians, the medical profession is likely the oldest and most well known for having such a long-standing tradition of professional courtesy among its professionals. Some other well known groups who have some form of professional courtesy also include attorneys, performing arts, and law enforcement. The phrase may also be applied in a literal form, such as the required ethical behavior of lawyers towards each other.
In 1803, Thomas Percival wrote his classic essay on medical ethics which endorsed complimentary professional care to “All members of the profession, including apothecaries as well as physicians and surgeons, together with their wives and children, should be attended gratuitously.” In 1847, the American Medical Association’s Code of Ethics similarly endorsed withholding charges for services to other physicians and their families, known as professional courtesy. This is likely the first modern day documentation of the philosophy.
Among physicians, it has been historically traditional to provide medical care at no or reduced cost to physician colleagues and their immediate family members. The original purpose of this was to discourage physicians from treating themselves and members of their own family. The custom dates back to Hippocrates, well before physicians reached middle-class income levels. However, physicians regularly providing free or reduced rate services as professional courtesy must remain mindful in the age of copays, insurance only billing, and referrals, the practice can run afoul of the law under certain circumstances.
In 1994, the American Medical Association issued a Code of Medical Ethics Opinion advising free of charge and reduced rate services was not an ethical requirement, and physicians should use their own judgment in deciding to extend such professional courtesy.
In law enforcement
The term has been used to refer to the practice by law enforcement officers allowing other officers to engage in traffic violations and some crimes without being reported or arrested. There are three tools that law enforcement officers use to implement "professional courtesy":
First, some states (such as California) issue "confidential plates" to employees in law enforcement, and other public officials. The plates keep identities and addresses anonymous, allowing employees the inadvertent ability to travel on toll-ways without charge. Even serious offences such as drunk driving are subject to professional courtesy "discretion", and federal law assists in the process by exempting police officers and firefighters from a federal law that requires truck drivers to be blood-tested after an accident.
Third, there is a web site offering law enforcement employees the purchase of a "family card" they can give to friends and family to produce at, for example, a traffic stop to identify them to the officer as a family member. Anti-police groups and people wary of the ethical actions of police officers purport that where an ordinary member of the public would get a ticket this notification card will cause the officer to overlook any violations of the law the person may have made and tell them to go on their way. The vendor of this card is explicit about the intention behind these cards.
Until the 1960s it was customary for theater managements to permit members of Actors Equity and other members of the profession into Broadway shows for free. This practice continues in the Off-Off-Broadway world where members of Equity must be admitted free of charge to any Showcase production in which there is a member of the union in the cast if there are seats left at curtain time. This applies as well to bona fide producers, directors and casting directors, who do not have to wait until showtime to be seated.
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