Why being referred to as a physician matters

Ask anybody who works with me — I ask to be called Nisha in most cases.  I’m really not someone who wants everyone to call me “Dr. Mehta.”  It may just be because it makes me feel old, but for whatever reason, it’s a personal preference.

The exception to that is when I’m speaking to patients or in a context where I’m presenting myself or my thoughts as a physician in a public setting.  In most of those instances, I often find that I’m catching myself from defaulting to my routine, “Hi, I’m Nisha,” and actively making an effort to make sure I’m addressed as Dr. Mehta.

Why?  It’s not about my ego.  Honestly, I don’t want to come off as pretentious.  I genuinely want to be approachable and encourage discussion.  I want to earn the respect of my patients from the service that I provide, not by forcing it on them with a term.

But here’s why I think being referred to as a physician, and not a provider (or any other generic term for a health care practitioner) matters, and why in general, being as specific as possible with the terminology used to refer to each person on the health care team is important; it comes down to trust and patient outcomes.

In an era where we in the medical field are competing with Google, our titles and expertise should be stressed, not glossed over.  It’s important for patients to trust who is taking care of them, and part of that requires understanding the level and scope of education/experience that the person in front of them has.  As a society, our goal for health care should be to optimize patient outcomes, and that is dependent on patients listening to the recommendations of those who give them. Knowing that the advice they’re being given is drawn from over a decade of specialized training certainly adds credibility, and not something we should be downplaying.

This isn’t a tirade against non-physician members of the health care team.  Even amongst physicians, a patient may feel a different level of comfort with a medical student, a resident, an attending physician in their early years, or the chair of a department. I don’t think that non-physician members of the health care team should be lumped under the term mid levels either.  It takes away from the understanding of each person’s respective expertise.  A technologist or a medical assistant has a different education than a registered nurse, who has a different education than a nurse practitioner.  If you asked me to do the job of an X-ray technician, I can tell you with 100 percent confidence that I am not qualified to do so.  Each member of the health care team provides a valuable service in their own role, and our goal should be to emphasize everyone’s strengths and foster more trust in the system as a whole.

Additionally, for accurate communication of medical history,  patients and members of the health care team all have to understand what workup has been performed and by whom.  This isn’t just the case with regards to how we label people.  I’m a radiologist, and patients often tell me they had an X-ray, when in reality they had an MRI or an ultrasound, and this makes a big difference.  In medicine, being as precise and accurate as possible matters, and misinterpretation can have serious consequences.  Why should it be any different when referring to members of the health care team?

Ultimately, the most pressing arguments for not calling physicians providers aren’t about ego, though so many physicians are (in my mind, rightfully) demoralized by the term, and physician burnout does have implications on the national level.  We should be emphasizing each member of the health care team’s strengths, and downplaying a physician’s level of education does not help the patient.  Who does it help?  Insurance companies and hospital administrators with a vested monetary interest in cutting physician compensation.

So, if physicians don’t like the term, and if we agree that expertise is valuable, then why not just let physicians keep the titles listed on their diplomas? Aside from making it possible to pay physicians less, can somebody give me good reasons to call physicians providers?  I’d love to have that discussion.

Nisha Mehta is a radiologist and founder, Physician Side Gigs and the Physician Side Gigs Facebook group.  She can be reached at her self-titled site, Nisha Mehta, MD, and on Twitter @nishamehtamd

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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