Let's say you were in a social setting, or even some business settings, and you introduced yourself to someone using your first name but that person's response was to introduce himself/herself using their last name and a honorific. You might think they were oddly formal. If, in those same settings, someone greeted you by your first name while introducing himself/herself using an honorific and his/her last name, well, you might think he/she was stuffy, if not a jerk.
Yet this happens all the time in health care settings.
Now, in the past, I've been critical of the use of the term "patients" to describe us laypeople in the health care system, arguing that it connotes a certain passive, secondary status about us. Ashley Graham Kennedy, a philosophy professor at Florida Atlantic University, goes me one further: in a BMJ opinion piece, she asserts that "the title 'doctor' is an anachronism that disrespects patients."
How about that?
Professor Kennedy cites situations where doctors introduce themselves as doctors while not taking into account their patients' own professional titles. How many of us have had a physician casually use our first name while expecting us to use their title? If we happen to be sitting on an exam table or in a hospital bed wearing a gown that leaves us half exposed, the asymmetry is even more pronounced.
She notes that we don't need titles or even white coats -- more on that in a bit -- to figure out who our caregivers are or what their role in our care is. More on point, she argues that the title is an explicit expectation that we are to treat them with respect, due to the training that the title signifies, whereas respect is something that deserves to be earned, such as by how we are treated.
It is the 21st century after all. We know that not all physicians are equal, that not all medical education and training is the same, and that not even physicians know everything, even within their specialty. If we're supposed to automatically respect all physicians, it better work both ways.
Personally, I don't mind calling a physician "doctor," although if he/she calls me by my first name (which I'd prefer) I'd expect that to be reciprocal. What I wonder is what the title really means anyway. There are a lot of "doctors" out there. If someone introduces themselves as "Dr. X," you don't know if that means an M.D./D.O., or if it means DDS, DMD, DC, DPM, Pharm.D., DVM, OD, Au.D, Ph.D or ScD. I'm sure that list isn't even complete, even within health care. So as a means of automatically signifying respect for our physician, it's a pretty poor marker.
Some of the reactions to Professor Kennedy's argument are even more interesting. While she believes that the deference the title expects is incompatible with patients being equal partners with their physicians, some respondents -- who usually seem to be physicians -- argued that the supposed partnership is not, in fact, equal, since physicians' training and experience makes them experts in a way patients can never equal, no matter how much Internet research they do.
I think those kind of responses kind of make Professor Kennedy's point.
The doctor/patient relationship is at its most asymmetrical when there is some acute event -- e.g., we have a heart attack, we need our appendix out, we need chemo. But with more of our health care spending going to chronic conditions that, in many cases, are linked to lifestyle choices, the asymmetry is greatly reduced, and physicians should think twice about assuming they know more about maintaining our health, especially if they can't demonstrate that they "practice what they preach" when it comes to those kinds of healthy choices.
If the title "doctor" is a verbal indicator of expected respect, the white lab coat is a tangible one. Almost all U.S. medical schools bestow one as part of their graduation ceremony (although this tradition is, surprisingly relatively new). The fashion of physicians wearing them had to do with the (belated) acceptance by the medical establishment in the latter part of the 19th century that, yes, germs mattered; the coat was to suggest they kept their environment as sterile as in a lab.
Ironically, of course, the white coat itself may (or may not) be a carrier for germs, which has led the NHS to adopt a "bare-below-the-elbows" policy.
This is, apparently, a hot topic. There are more issues than one might have imagined, including what physicians think patients want and -- my favorite -- how cartoons would portray physicians without a white coat. Another opinion piece in BMJ bemoaned how the NHS "bare-below-the-elbows" policy has led to "scruffy doctors," urging them to "put your ties back on."
Not everyone agrees that the more casual attire leads patients to view doctors as scruffy and thus possibly lacking in hygiene. (Dr.) Phillip Lederer wrote an excellent article on the controversy recently, reminding physicians that they'd still be a doctors even without the white coat. He concluded: "There is no harm in avoiding white coats, but there could be danger in wearing one."
That would seem like the killer argument, but apparently it is not.
I mean, really, I can see wearing a white coat if the physician actually works in a lab, such as a pathologist, but it is hard to see it as much else other than a status symbol if they are actually seeing patients. Health care is full of status symbols, including not just the white coats and automatically calling physicians "doctor" but also those nice parking spaces reserved for physicians that patients and their families often have to walk past, or, for that matter, major donors getting their names on health care buildings.
We shouldn't take any of them more seriously than if, say, all physicians started wearing monocles to further model those 19th century physicians. The point is, it's not supposed to be about their status, but about our health.
Paul Revere may have never actually shouted "The British are coming! The British are coming!" but he did help herald a revolution. Maybe by rethinking some of the traditional status symbols in health care we can signal a revolution of our own, fighting for a health care system in which we are more responsible for our own health and are expected to be more equal partners with the people who help us with that.
Or we could try the monocles.