By Victoria Prince, MD, PhD
Almost two years ago I started my intern year on labor and delivery. If I’m being honest, I was terrified. I was no longer a med student, there to learn and to take tests. I was an intern, there to learn and work! I was finally a doctor! But while that was the new reality, I wasn’t really ready to say it out loud.
Some medical students introduce themselves as “Student Doctor So-and-so”. I was never fond of the term “student doctor”, so when I cared for patients in med school I opened with the line “Hi, I’m Victoria, a medical student on the team looking after you.” I’d sometimes follow that with the pseudo-apology “I can’t write you a prescription for any of the ‘good’ drugs, but if there’s something going on and you feel no one’s listening to you, I promise I’ll listen!”
On July 1st, 2014 that all changed. Now I COULD order prescriptions (let the drugs be good, bad, or indifferent) and I was terrified. Case in point- on my first day I hemmed and hawed for 5 minutes about whether ordering TUMS for a new mom with heart-burn could do harm before finally asking one of the other residents if I could order it for her. The answer, of course, was yes. (In fact, she already had the medication available to her if she asked her nurse.)
More than medications changed in my world: I could no longer call myself “Medical Student,” yet I certainly wasn’t ready to call myself “Doctor”. Instead, I modified my student script and said “Hi- I’m Victoria- one of the residents on the team looking after you.” In fact, I’m fairly certain that in my first month as a resident I never once introduced myself as “Doctor.”
This changed in my second month of residency when I moved to the community hospital where our family medicine residents run the in-patient medicine service. There, my attending physician (my supervising physician) heard my introduction and said “Your life would be much easier if you introduced yourself as ‘doctor.’” Innately, I hated that reality. Despite working hard for many years to earn a slew of letters after my name, I’m not comfortable with the thought that saying “Doctor” gets me more respect.
I battled on for a day or two, with my attending introducing me to patients as a “Doctor” and whispering over my shoulder, “Doctor,” when she heard me introduce myself by my first name on work phone calls. It didn’t happen quickly, but bit-by-bit, either by repetition, or by the slow growth of the belief that maybe, just maybe, I was actually “doctoring”, I started to become comfortable introducing myself as Doctor Prince.
Now that I’m almost two years past my first day as an intern I have a little more perspective on titles. While I’ve come to accept that a title may get you immediate respect, I’ve also learnt that it can give your patient confidence in you- and that is something incredibly valuable. Over time you may lose a patient’s confidence, no matter your title, but when a doctor meets a patient for the first time, a little bit of added confidence in the person guiding medical care can go a long way. Hopefully we prove that we’re worthy of their confidence by our actions, but the name can help get things off on the right foot.
I find that being part of a medical team is subtly different. When it comes to co-workers, you get respect for your knowledge, teamwork, and humanity, and while I now always appreciate it when nurses, medical assistants, and other health professionals refer to me as Dr. Prince in front of patients, I’m also pleased when they refer to me by my first name in the hallways or at the nurse’s station. We are part of a team built on respect as well as titles, and just as I aim to earn the confidence of my patient, I hope and intend to earn the respect of my coworkers. In that team setting respect is something you feel, and not something that I find requires titles.
That being said, I know that titles can hold different value for different people. Some of my colleagues prefer to go by their first name at all times in their professional life, while others choose to always use their title while working as part of a medical team. I don’t think there is one “right” way, and I expect that this can evolve throughout a career, but for now I am happy to have reached a place in my career in healthcare where I have found confidence both as “Doctor Prince” and “Victoria”.
Victoria Prince, MD, PhD is a second year Family Medicine Resident in the Department of Family & Preventive Medicine at the University of Utah School of Medicine.