This summer, thousands of new doctors officially started their careers. Though medical school certainly prepares us, it can take time to get used to introducing yourself as a doctor.
I remember when I was a medical student, a cafeteria worker spotted my white coat and greeted me with “What’s up, doc?” That was the first time I was addressed as a doctor in public.
It was a simple exchange, and maybe it was in jest, but it still spoke volumes. “Doc” said that I belonged, that I was now seen as a person deserving of extra respect.
Since then, I’ve come to find that the title of doctor is practical and useful. I can get another doctor on a phone immediately and have even gotten tests ordered without my credentials being checked.
Yet even though I appreciate the power of having earned the title, I regret the distance it may create. Why shouldn’t I be on a first-name basis with my patients? What about the doctor-patient partnership?
When I introduce myself to patients, I’ve made a point of using my first and last names, without saying doctor first. It’s an invitation to call me whatever they want. I don’t want to be on some lofty, inaccessible perch, because I know patients already feel vulnerable, telling me things about themselves not even close family or friends know.
The title of “doctor” is so entrenched in the medical culture that even when I speak with senior mentors, I rarely use their first names. Yet, if my wife, who is an attorney, spoke to her boss or the CEO, she’d refer to them by first names. Why is medical culture different? Are we so entitled?
In the movie Austin Powers, the villain Dr. Evil corrects someone for not remembering the doctor title: “I didn’t go to six years of evil medical school to be called mister.”
While I’m fine with my patients calling me whatever they want, most fall back on the default. Once in a while, a patient might inquire where I went to medical school, or how long I’ve been practicing, which is transparently asking, “You seem young. Are you really qualified and experienced?” That seems fine. I want them to kick my tires before committing to having me as their doctor.
Whatever I call myself, however, I’ve come to realize that, as a white man, if I’m wearing a white coat or scrubs and walk with confidence in any hospital, even if I don’t have an ID badge, people assume I’m a doctor.
But that isn’t the experience of my peers who are women or people of color, and are much more often questioned about their credentials or experience. Tamika Cross, a Black OB-GYN doctor who offered to help an ailing passenger on a Delta airline flight, was turned away since the flight attendant didn’t believe she was a doctor. Her story is typical, not unusual.
Esther Choo, a prominent emergency medicine physician and activist who speaks and tweets widely about gender equity in medicine, kept track of how many mentions are necessary for patients to reliably comprehend that she is their doctor. “The answer is: 3 verbal cues and 2 visual cues,” she tweeted. “On entry: ‘Hi, I’m DOCTOR Choo. [Holding out my DOCTOR badge.] I’ll be your DOCTOR today.’ Before exiting: ‘Just a reminder — my name is DOCTOR Choo’ [as I write Dr. Choo on the white board].”
I have never had these troubles. Even as a student, I remember a patient assuming I was the top doctor, when my boss, a female physician, stood right next to me. So for many doctors who aren’t white men, emphasizing their title is important, even necessary, for them to get the respect they deserve and to help change the public image of who a doctor is.
So I’ve come to see that when I don’t use the title, I might be inadvertently making life more difficult for my colleagues. When white male doctors like me use it to refer to themselves, it makes it easier for female doctors or doctors of color to do the same. So even at the risk of seeming pretentious, I think it’s reasonable to insist that every doctor be called a doctor. “Doc” is fine, too.
Jules Lipoff is an assistant professor of dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine.