Thursday, December 01, 2011

I Worked Damn Hard to Be Called "Doctor"

Whoa. Am I a snob or what?
Here's the deal.
I am finally, after three decades of education, able to practice medicine without being supervised by someone else. I can write all my own orders, sign all my own notes, see all my own patients, submit all my own bills, do all my own rounds independently. I have my own office (well, okay, I share my office with a colleague, but whatever). My name is on the door. I don't have to ingratiate myself to anyone just for a grade. I don't have to pretend to be interested in areas of medicine that totally and utterly bore me.

I'm a doctor.

I have the $200,000 plus in student loans to prove it. And the forehead wrinkles.

I've spent the past 9 years of my life in medical training, and that was after college.

So, when I walk into a room, and I introduce myself as "Doctor Riegel," and, without a blink, someone says, "Oh, hi, Emily," it raises a bristle on my back.
And not just because I think I'm so super cool and that everyone around me should be calling me "Doctor Riegel."
I don't check the "Dr." box on forms that ask for a Title.
I don't get pissy when I'm checking in at a hotel for a conference and they call me "Ms. Riegel."
I don't have "Emily Riegel, MD" atop my personal checks.

In certain settings, though, it's important to me to be recognized as Doctor Riegel.

You see, contrary to what we've been taught as young children, the masses still see a relatively young woman working in a hospital and assume she must be a nurse. Which means they assume she works for a doctor. Which means they assume that what she says may or may not be the final answer or decision. Which means they sit there, waiting, for the doctor to show up and tell them the diagnosis, tell them what medicine to take or what test to have done.

I have had patients tell me, to my face, after I have seen them for an entire week, "It sure would be nice if a doctor would ever come and see me."


Seriously! People!

Imagine this.
I have taken care of a dying man for several days. Adjusted his medications so that he no longer feel excruciating pain, severe shortness of breath, extreme anxiety. I've made countless phone calls about his ongoing care. Spent hours reading his chart, and writing my own notes. And many more hours counseling his family on the dying process and supporting them through their grief.
All the while putting my years of hard work and education toward this man's benefit.
And, when I walk in the room, overhear someone say, "Oh, Emily just walked in."

When I type it that way, it sounds so petty to even blink an eye at such a comment. Perhaps, some would argue, I should take it as a compliment. Take it as if I have established such rapport with them, and gotten to know them so well, that they feel like I'm a part of their family. No longer a *doctor*. Instead, I'm one of them. I'm *Emily*.

Here's my problem: if my first name were David or Jason or Michael, would they be using it?
Because what I have seen is that no matter how young or old, how good or bad, a male physician is, he is always referred to as "Doctor."

What I really care about isn't that I get called by the appropriate moniker. What I care about is being seen as someone just as, if not more, competent as my male counterparts. What I care about is that my work on their behalf be seen as being just as valuable as if it were done by my male counterparts.

What I care about is that my patients and their families believe in me and the care I can provide them.

So, when I am being called by my first name, I start to wonder if they are one of those patients, sitting there everyday thinking "when am I going to see a doctor."
I start to wonder, "Do they realize that I actually know what I'm talking about, or have they stopped listening to me because I'm not the doctor. I'm just a nurse/aide/custodian. Why should they listen to what I have to say about their disease."

And there's no polite way to ask this. Do I say, "You DO realize I'm your doctor, right?" (okay, so I have had to actually ask that at one point). Do I tell them, "I really prefer you to call me Doctor Riegel."

Admittedly, maybe some of this is my fault. I do cringe when people go throwing around the fact that they are Doctor So-and-So to anyone they encounter.  Maybe I do hesitate to clarify my name. When, after introducing myself as Doctor Riegel, someone says, "Now what was your name?" I do frequently say, "Emily Riegel." I get it, that might set a certain precedent.
I have seen my male colleagues do this same thing, that when they state their name as "John Doe," they still go on to be referred to as "Dr. Doe."

Believe me, I'm not trying to belittle the hard work of nurses or other health care professionals who aren't given the title of "Doctor," but, if you are a patient, can you honestly say that you don't view their roles differently? That you don't have a different kind of expectation?

Harder to take, though, (and, all truths revealed, the impetus for this post) are when male colleagues, who may or may not have more professional experience than me, who may or may not outrank me (Senior faculty>junior faculty [me]>fellows>residents>interns), call me or email me or text me and use my first name, while referring to themselves by their professional title.

Can we meet to talk about the patient later today?
Doctor Blowhard

Thank you for sending me the information about patient.
Doctor Toocool

Emily, please call Doctor Smartypants at ext 568

If you're going to call me Emily, then go ahead and call yourself Joe. Or whatever your first name might be. It's that simple.

In an age when there are more female medical students than male medical students, when more and more women are physicians, how can we still be facing this kind of gender gap?

Does anyone out there have some wisdom or advice?
Am I just being hyper-sensitive?
Should I grow a pair and start insisting everyone call me Doctor Riegel?



abby said...

This same thing happens in my field, but it's usually from students and not co-workers so it's different. We need to talk about this in person! Maybe like me you've considered taking measures to appear older to address the youth element, but it's definitely mostly a gender bias. Sexism, I shake my fist at you!

bethany said...

Love this!! I have never thought about this from a female doctor's perspective but I would be PISSED if I were in your shoes. You have worked your tail off and deserve to be called Doctor. I remember when a co-worker thought I was a 6th grader instead of a teacher with 2 years under her belt (ok NOT the same thing...but still it ticked me off) Don't be afraid to say something...after all you've paid 200K for that title!

Kathy said...

Just experienced the same thing - and I am OLD! I received an email where all other faculty were referred to as 'Dr', and I the writer used my first name. Now, I am a PhD, so I think that, for clarity sake, it is fine to refer to physicians as "Dr" and add the PhD to the end of a PhD's name! BUT... the writer referred to other PhDs as "Dr", and I was just "Kathy". I sent an email in response, and received a rather perfunctory, excuse-ridden email back. It did not feel satisfying. So... gender may be more of an offender than age.