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What’s in a name? Doctors, titles, and pretense

January 17, 2010

Recently, Med Valley High asked about whether it was appropriate to insist on being called “Doctor” in a social setting or to introduce yourself as “Doctor Soandso.” I sometimes struggle with social convention, as I am in some ways a radical and in others, a conservative sheep hiding in the corner.

I’ve thought about some of the unwritten rules that I try to follow. They seem pretty safe to me, but some days I feel more doctorly than others, so I have an inextricable bias.

Introducing Others:

1. Wherever possible, use the most respectful title: “This is Dr. Soandso, Head of Surgery” and let them correct anyone else if they prefer to be called ‘Jim’ instead.

2. If you are about to introduce someone and you aren’t 100% on how to say their name even if you’ve known them for years, that’s a good time to figure it out finally. It goes something like “hey, how do you say your last name exactly? I don’t want to get it wrong!” and they are usually keen to help out. You then get to show off that you were listening when you help them make a grand entrance!

corneliusIntroducing Yourself:

1. It always depends on the context, but generally you should say whatever it is you like to be called while performing the task you are performing. At hockey, I am “Jess” because it’s easier to yell :)

2. With patients, I usually say “Hi, I’m Dr. Otte but you can call me Jessica if you like” and secretly giggle if they say “yes, Doctor!” I also wear a nametag with my full name preceded by “Dr.” so they know my role because I don’t look as ‘doctory’ as I could. Also, I read a paper ages ago that said patients prefer doctors with white coats, handshakes, and nametags – and I hate white coats!

3. When I meet doctors/nurses/non-patients in the medical setting, I’ll say my first name and “I’m one of the Residents” or “I’m the Resident with X service” because they usually know what that means. Sometimes I’ll mention my last name because people don’t know how to say it, and I don’t want them to feel uncomfortable and need to ask me about it later on. I won’t correct them if they mangle my last name because as long as they spell it right in the chart, it doesn’t matter! The only time I would like a nurse to call me “doctor” is in front of the patient, if I’ve not yet met the patient. It just helps keep my role congruous in the patient’s mind.

4. When I’m on the phone to clinics or wards, I usually say “It’s Dr. Otte” so they know that it’s the doctor calling to speak to the nurse or another doctor. This can expedite things and few receptionists will put you on hold for an hour under this system. I also say “Dr. Otte” on the phone when calling patients or families so they immediately know what the call is about. I think it’s funny when they yell “oohhh, it’s the doctor!” to the family that happen to be in their house at the moment. It’s very sweet! (You can tell I’m not used to this MD thing yet, right?)

Other doctor name and role etiquette:

1. Regarding putting your title on credit cards, I haven’t done this one yet. I’ll admit that I’m tempted to see what happens – anecdotally, people say they get better service; I imagine that expectations for high tips and ‘coming to the rescue’ are also much higher. I look a lot more like a PhD than an MD (I’m young, have a piercing, and wear casual/funky clothes when I travel), so the airline staff would probably think I’m just a pretentious twit anyway.

2. Female doctors are regularly confused as being nurses, male nurses are often seen as the doctor. I am not a nurse. My dad is a nurse. He’s the moustache man in his hospital’s “Caring Spirit Brochure” for heck’s sake! I am not THAT caring! I will correct people if they say “Nurse, please, I need a bedpan.” I’ll tell them that I’m a doctor – and I’ll get them a bedpan if I know where one is, unless the nurse is nearby and not preoccupied. It just makes life for everyone easier.

3. Talking about the job is a challenge. I’m proud of what I do, and I believe I’ve worked hard to get here. Despite that, I ought not to rub it in people’s faces. It takes practice to get over the “dooood, I’m  a doctor! oh my godddd! I’m a doctor” phase but I’m getting there. When people ask “oh, what do you do for work?” I try to say  ‘healthcare.’  If they really don’t care, they’ll stop there. Most people dig deeper, so then I’ll tell ‘em straight up, but then promptly move on to ask about their profession.

That usually goes okay, however guilt or shame sometimes kills me when they say “I work at MacDonald’s” because I feel like a turd; this is mitigated if they actually really enjoy their job. Part of it is my latent condescension thinking ‘what non-teenager would want to work for MacDonald’s?’ but I’ve learned that there are people who like it and have some hilarious stories about their time there. Ask about the treads of their shoes! Actually, instead of profession, what I’d rather ask is what kind of music a person listens to – that is a way that is easy to relate to all people and it’s hard to find someone who doesn’t have any musical taste in common with whom I don’t have some favourite band in common.

4. It’s always fun to laugh at names of people who don’t exist (or aren’t within earshot!). Here are some funny names including lots of unfortunate doctors’ names for when you are bored – most of them are miserable. I like “Hugh Jorgan,” “Les Plack” (a dentist), and Dr. I. Ball (optometrist).


What do you think? Am I really a turd?

16 Comments leave one →
  1. janine mendez sario permalink
    January 18, 2010 6:26 pm

    No. Your not a tues :-)

    • January 18, 2010 7:03 pm

      You mean I’m not a ‘turd’ I think! I hope!

      I didn’t want to edit it in case the spelling was intentional.

  2. January 22, 2010 10:35 pm

    What?? You think PhDs are pretentious twits? I’m going to try not to take that too personally… ;-)

    • January 22, 2010 11:02 pm

      haha no! I’m sorry if it sounds like that. Many of my friends would slap me with their thesis for thinking like that! A PhD is something I would never have had the focus for – it takes a strong, independent learner to get through and while many of my friends have the stamina and work-ethic for it, I do not! I had wanted to go to grad school and pursue research in neuroscience but I found theory lonely and too abstract. Technically, PhD is the higher degree -I’d list “PhD” after MD on a business card if I possessed such a degree.

      What I was referring to is when PhDs, Chiropractors, Optomotrists, Naturopaths,etc. misrepresent themselves as MDs; people have a particular expectation of allopathic medical professionals including confidentiality, duty to the community, certification by an accredited body, etc. which may or may not be features of other professions.

      I really don’t look like the average medical doctor – and so I think people would think I’m lying if I represent myself as such in situations where it is not required or expected (i.e. putting the Dr. part on a credit card). I think many MDs do put that on their credit card because they are incorporated and want all their business expenses to be under their business, which is usually named “Dr Blahblah,” While they have a “Mr. Blahblah”card for personal use.

      I’ve seen a case at a University where a guy who hadn’t graduated highschool insisted on being called “Doctor” after he received an honorary doctorate from a little known eastern-European university. That wasn’t considered ‘Kosher’ by the administration. In that case, he was posing as someone who had done 5+ years of study to become and expert in his field – which he wasn’t.

  3. January 25, 2010 6:52 pm

    I only use “Doctor” in medical situations, when someone is my patient. I also am “Doctor D” for my secret blogging identity!

    Other than that I go by the name my mother gave me. It strikes me as pretentious when MDs use the doctor handle in social situations. I don’t offer the doctor info unless someone asks about it.

    It is kind of weird to be a doctor undercover. I’ve had acquaintances who knew me for a long time before they realized I’m an MD. People treat you different, which strikes me as strange and awkward. I actually prefer when people don’t know. They are more relaxed.

  4. Rob Hughes permalink
    January 27, 2010 12:17 am

    I consult to physicians every day as a consultant to the BCMA, and I am not an MD, PHd, or any other variety. I have a BSc in Health Informatics and I am involved in electronic medical record implementations. I use this business rule…if in an e-mail the physician closes with ‘Dr. Doctor’, my reply will open with ‘Dr. Doctor’. If the physician closes with ‘Dale’, my subsequent correspondence will be addressed to ‘Dale’…same with face-2-face meetings.

    • January 28, 2010 1:37 am

      that seems pretty reasonable, Rob.

      I tend to do the same in e-mails with doctors I don’t know in person, but I still tend to call attending physicians (my superiors) “Dr. Doctor” (even in email) unless they correct me.

  5. February 26, 2010 2:58 pm

    Thanks for the interesting post. Right now I’m a chaplain resident, and a newly ordained minister. I am also young (30). Yes, it does get aqward (sp?). But at the same time it is good to have the authority that I have earned through study and hard work (and hopefully by gaining some wisdom), when it is needed.

  6. March 26, 2010 9:24 pm

    I know a lot of people that only trust doctors if they see them as they expect them to be: whitecoats, stets, confidence, etc…

    I’m not sure though if this only applies on the first meeting.

  7. Peter permalink
    August 30, 2010 11:00 pm

    What about ‘doctors’ who don’t really own a doctoral degree? I am nor referring to MD (which is not an actual doctoral degree, anyway — amazingly lawyers are more honest about this with their JD degrees) but to chiropractors, dentists, vets, etc. Even worse all those above plus physicians in countries like the UK and Australia where you received a Bachelor degree.

    I always find hilarious when I go to the GP and she insists on calling me Mr even though I am a Professor with a PhD in engineering, which is well ahead of her education of a Bachelor.

  8. September 30, 2010 4:50 pm

    This, I feel, is very generational, as well as regional. ie: I am much more comfortable calling my colleagues by their first name when they are close to my age (by which I mean within 20 years). However, my soon to be partner is 73, and although I call him by his first name in private conversation with my guy (always preceded by a pause and followed by a giggle), you can bet I call him Dr when speaking to him. I also have a neurologist friend who is about 3 years shy of being my parents’ age. When he asked me to call him by his first name, it took a while (and several slip ups) to get used to.

    As for regional: I did my med school clinicals all over the states, followed by residency/ fellowship in the East. I can tell you that in the midwest, it is much more common for Drs to introduce themselves by their first name to other healthcare professionals. It is understood that they, in turn, will be introduced as “Dr” to patients. As soon as I came to the East Coast, it was Drs all around. This makes me often feel pretentious, so I will frequently introduce myself by my first and last name, followed by my specialty. I let them decide what to call me. And, for the most part, I will eventually correct them to call me by my first name in private.

    As for patients, I am not too interested in being buddies, so I introduce myself as Dr. Older patients appreciate the formality, for the most part. Although, I have had elderly patients insisting on knowing my first name–and then calling me by that name–which made me feel a little like I was talking to my grandparents. Also, being young and attractive, I have been hit on by patients (of all ages), and I believe that introducing myself as “Dr” nips that possibility in the bud–sometimes. On the other hand, introducing myself as my first name kind of invites that kind of discussion.

    Of course, things will be a little different very soon. I think that at my new place I may introduce myself to patients as first and last name. Cancer is a place where it’s nice to have a buddy.

    Sorry for the ramble… I think I may post this to my blog. credit to you, of course!! :)

    • September 30, 2010 8:09 pm

      Yah it’s tough to get used to calling older colleagues – who have probably been mentors or even supervisors at some point – by first name. Since writing this post I have increasingly used “Hello, I’m Dr. Otte, I’m a resident physician with the [insert service] team.” It’s just easier. No one remembers my last name though. I get “ohh Hi, Dr. Lotto!” and other variations that are quite amusing. Totally agree with you in the context of special relationships, like palliative care, than being a ‘buddy’ might be the best way to go.

  9. Joe permalink
    May 22, 2013 3:25 pm

    good god, it’s “McDonald’s”; not “MacDonald’s.” I express disbelief over the error only because of how ubiquitous McDonald’s is…

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