Dr. Lauren Kuwik
For women in medicine, barriers abound: lower pay for equal work, “mommy penalties,” and a leaky pipeline where less than 20 percent of department chairs, hospital executives and medical school deans are women.
A small but stinging reminder of these gendered inequities is the common occurrence of addressing women physicians by our first names. This has been a hotly discussed topic locally and in online communities. A colleague confided that she was consistently addressed at a department meeting by her first name, while her male colleagues were referred to as “Doctor.”
Another told of the irritation of introducing herself to a new patient as “Doctor,” only to be referred to by her first name in reply. Women of color face the compounded prejudice of gender and underrepresented minority status, with national headlines recounting the experiences of black female physicians whose medical expertise was turned away by airline staff during in-flight emergencies, due to ingrained biases about what a doctor should look like.
In October 2018, the journal Contemporary Pediatrics featured the differing opinions of two physicians on the treatment of epilepsy. The male physician earned his MD while the female physician earned both her MD and Ph.D. The accompanying biographies identified the male physician as “Doctor” and the female physician as “Ms.”
Though touted as an editorial error, this is not an isolated event and reflects a larger national trend. A study of recorded grand rounds presentations, prestigious invitational lectures given to a hospital or medical school community, showed that when women were introducing a male speaker, they used formal titles 95 percent of the time. Males introducing female speakers used formal professional titles less than half the time.
When encountering this situation, most female physicians initially brush it off as an individual occurrence. Sometimes roles are unclear; this is especially true in hospitals. Perhaps the patient referred to us by our first name because we were young, they were incredibly comfortable with us or they assumed we were the physician assistant?
For those of us in private practice, it is tough to blame the lack of title on mistaken identity. But, over time, we realize that this routinely happens, even in the presence of our male colleagues who are often professionally addressed as Doctor.
Not too long ago, I was calling a male physician to discuss a mutual patient. After introducing myself as “Doctor Kuwik,” the female secretary asked “Which doctor’s office are you calling from and how do you spell your first name?” My replies: “Myself. I am the doctor. D-O-C-T-O-R.”
Correction is especially sensitive when it is our patients who are the ones using our first names. We may be too polite to say something, not wanting to damage the therapeutic relationship.
My longtime head nurse asked me once, “What is your least favorite mispronunciation of your name?” My reply was “Lauren.” In professional settings, my first name is “Doctor.”
Just as we do for male physicians, let’s work together to show female physicians the respect they have earned. Let’s change the idea of what a doctor looks like for future generations. As we knock and open the door, why not greet us with “Hi, Doctor.”
Dr. Lauren Kuwik is an internist and pediatrician in private practice in Orchard Park.