Why we need to stop calling physicians “providers”

It’s a change in nomenclature that’s come a bit out of the blue over the last few years. The forces appear to be aligning to gradually push the word “doctor” out of the center and towards the periphery of health care. Whether we are talking about administrative communication or health care information technology order entry — it seems that we are no physicians or even clinicians, but we have all become grouped together under the non-specific term of “provider.”

This is a huge change, and from what I’ve seen has gone barely challenged or even questioned. Even calling a pharmacy a few years ago has changed from “Doctors press 2 now” to “Prescribers press 2 now.” Now I make no judgment about my non-physician colleagues, who are increasingly providing care at the frontlines of medicine. It’s not about them, or what they do. (In fact, nurse practitioner or physician assistant sounds far more professional than provider anyway!)

The issue is with the term “provider” and how a group of highly trained physicians who have in most cases spent well over a decade in training have allowed themselves to be grouped under this umbrella term. Why does this matter?

Well, there’s a lot in a name. Can you imagine another group of professionals — whether they be attorneys, accountants or dentists — allowing themselves to be lumped together under terms like “legal provider,” “finance provider” or “dental care provider”? Unlikely. It’s so non-specific, and is used almost anywhere including referring to “cable TV providers,” “electricity providers,” or “telephone providers.” It’s a pattern in life that if you want to lower the power and clout of a group of people, start first by changing what you call them, and replace a respected title with a murky one.

In fact, I am equally surprised by how so many of my physician colleagues have jumped on the bandwagon, especially those in leadership positions. I’ve seen them openly be in a room surrounded by their physician colleagues and talk about how many providers are on-call for the weekend or how many providers are joining the new group (even though it’s all physicians).

So here’s a suggestion, if we mustn’t refer to doctors as doctors anymore — why not use a slightly better term than provider? How about clinician? At least that sounds remotely more scientific and distinguished. In the meantime, here’s how you can avoid becoming a provider:

  • When you are emailed by an administrator who is referring to you and your fellow colleagues as providers — correct them immediately and never use that word to describe yourself or your physician group.
  • If you are involved in the design of any new system’s wording, whether it’s on the computer or on a written form, if physician is really too specific, encourage use of the word “clinician” instead.
  • Ask your hospital IT department why the word “provider” is everywhere across the IT system and politely ask them if they can change the wording.
  • When you are filling out any paperwork that is asking for the provider’s signature, add in the word “physician” or “MD.”
  • Be proud to call yourself a doctor!

We belong to an ancient profession. The word doctor is over two thousand years old, aptly derived from the Latin doctus, meaning to teach or instruct. Physician was used traditionally to describe a medical doctor, and King Henry VIII granted the first charter to form the Royal College of Physicians in 1518. In almost every country in the world, a medical doctor is considered to be among the most noble and prestigious professions, the title only conferred after one of the most rigorous university courses in existence. It is a privilege and honor to be one. You worked hard to become a fine doctor and clinician.

If you don’t allow yourself to be called a provider, you won’t be one. If however, you allow yourself to become a provider at every turn, then that is what you shall be.

Suneel Dhand is an internal medicine physician and author of Thomas Jefferson: Lessons from a Secret Buddha and High Percentage Wellness Steps: Natural, Proven, Everyday Steps to Improve Your Health & Well-being. He blogs at his self-titled site, Suneel Dhand.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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