The issues physicians face when changing their name

It’s my first day at a new facility — and I’m prepped with food, snacks and a closed-lid container for my morning coffee and to refill it in the afternoon with water. You never really know how stringent the policies will be for water containers at your new workstation or whether food or snacks are allowed. You might even be lucky enough to get a surprise Joint Commission inspection, or an infectious disease specialist could stop by at any time and berate all of the nurses and doctors for not following protocols. After all, our water bottles are teeming with infectious potentials — they are the most hazardous items in the emergency room. What I am also prepared for are the questions I will be asked about my name.

I walk in and introduce myself.

“Good morning, I’m Dr. Pérez-Johnson. I’m the new attending today, where shall I put my stuff, and where is the most convenient location for me to sign into a computer workstation?”

Usually, within five short minutes, I’m asked if I can see a patient and also how I’d like to be addressed.

“Is it: Dr. Johnson, Dr. Pérez. Dr. Johnson-Pérez, Dr. Pérez-Johnson, or, by God, is there a shorter version … Dr. PJ, Dr. J or Dr. P?”

Then later in the shift when there is a lull in patient volume, I get asked why my name is hyphenated — mostly by the nursing staff and occasionally by female residents who are not yet married or who are soon to be married. My answer begins as such: “Way back in the day when women physicians were still outnumbered by men, I had to determine how I wanted my medical name to stand.”

I was what was called a non-traditional student. I was married with kids, was a bit older and had a gap in my education — college had been several years ago, and I was now applying to medical school. Thus, my undergraduate transcripts were in my maiden name, and now when applying to medical school, my legal name was my husbands. How could I marry the two persons and still get credit for who I was and who I am currently and how would I like to be addressed both legally and professionally?

This is a difficult decision as Dr. Archana R. Shrestha stated, “I got married in 2007 and didn’t change my name legally until 2010. I got married in residency and kept my maiden name at work and personally. And it was when I was pregnant with my son that I legally changed my name to my married name because I wanted to have the same last name as my kids. But professionally, I still go by my maiden name. I asked my state licensing board if that was OK, and they said yes as long as everything medical I did was under the same name — my maiden name.”

“I changed my name since I got married in med school. But in retrospect would’ve kept it since my name is long/hard for some to pronounce. I would not have changed my name if I got married intern year or beyond,” shared Dr. Natasha K. Sriraman.

For me, I wanted to give some credit to my parents for helping me through college and also give credit to my husband as we embraced this journey into medical school. I also wanted to keep Perez to keep part of my ethnicity. Changing your name has legal consequences and has even more implications and ramifications when your profession requires you to be licensed. It is not an easy transition, but it is often much easier to accomplish prior to graduating from medical school.

Many women choose to just take the name of their new spouse, but what happens in the event of a divorce? Do you change it back to your maiden name or do you keep it the same for your kids?

“I married in med school and took his name. I didn’t change after the divorce because it’s Jack’s name. I married the third year of medical school. It was a pain to change to his name, but I thought it was forever. Now as an attending it would have been so much work on top of single motherhood. I just couldn’t imagine changing it. And it’s been easier to travel with Jack as we have the same name. I’m so indifferent about it now. It’s been my professional identity for so long. I don’t know what I’d do if I remarried,” said Dr. Alicia Hart, an emergency medicine physician.

It really does come down to a personal decision and in trying to keep everything aligned both socially and professionally. Am I Dr. Pérez-Johnson or just Mrs. Johnson, which is a whole different argument for another day, as male physiciañs are always referred to as Dr. X even socially? I, however, often forget what name I have given to the alarm company or dry cleaners – especially after a long string of nights. Did I put it under Perez-Johnson, or just Johnson, dang it, can you just look it up under my phone number?

Any way you choose is the right way as long as you feel comfortable with the choice. Below please find some resources to help transition to your new name, and be sure to check with your state licensing board and the social security office for other legal ramifications: NameChange.org and HitchSwitch.

Maria Perez-Johnson is a pediatrician.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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