Excuse Me..But Are You A Real Doctor?

Looking at the number of people with the honorific prefix “Dr” before their name, its not surprising that the public is getting quite confused on what the title represents..

Apart from the Doctors of Philosophy (Ph.D) and doctorates from some branches of engineering who do not dabble in healthcare ,  the title “Dr” can lead to lots of confusion among the public. This was borne out from a recent survey by the American Heart Association which among other things concluded that patients are not sure who is – and who is not – a medical doctor.

The survey asked if the following were medical doctors:

Orthopedist/orthopedic surgeon: Yes, of course! Except it wasn’t so obvious for the 16% of respondents who said “no” or were unsure.

Chiropractor: Not a medical doctor, a fact known by 64% of those surveyed.

Dentist: a dentist is not an M.D., but 69% thought otherwise.

Physical therapist: Not an M.D., but 22% said “yes” or were unsure.

Nutritionist: Not an M.D. Also a meaningless title. Same with “food coach,” “nutritional consultant” whose qualifications can range a lot. Look for “registered dietician” to be sure that they have attained the required training.

Ophthalmologist: Yes, an M.D, though 29% said “no” or were unsure.

Optometrist: Not an M.D., though 46% thought otherwise or were unsure.

Optometrists: almost half of survey respondents thought they were medical doctors


Primary-care physician: 9% actually said a PCP wasn’t an M.D. or weren’t sure.

Nurse practitioner: Despite the fact that this job title unambiguously includes the word “nurse,” 31% thought it required an M.D. or weren’t sure. The AMA is taking steps to make sure such confusion is minimised among the public.

Australian Nurse Practioner - often mistaken as medical doctors by patients


Regarding the latter, The American Nurses Association says this is part of the AMA’s “ongoing effort to limit the scope of practice of health care providers who are not physicians” and would make it illegal for non-physicians to say anything that would lead people to believe that their education, skills or training are the same as an M.D.

Turf protection, or, public service? You decide..


6 responses

  1. Thanks for the clarification. To add to the confusion, we recently found a Dr Sax. 🙂

  2. Thanks Doc for this most informative post!
    We must not forget the ‘sinseh’ and ‘bomoh’ too..

  3. Keep in mind that a medical doctor (MD) is not a “real” doctor in any fundamental or historical sense. A real doctor is a PhD, since “doctor” fundamentally means scholar or teacher. Real doctors have been around for about a 1,000 years. Only in the last 200 years have physicians tried to twist the word into meaning a healthcare provider. A mere MD is actually a trade school graduate; and not an academic degree.

    1. Excellent! Thank you for pointing that out. What you write is true.

      The word “doctor” derives from the latin “docere”, meaning to teach. Its first use was in the context of the church, the church doctors. These were men of great learning and scholarship, were fluent in ancient Greek, Latin, etc., and therefore authorized to teach the doctrine (another word deriving from the same root). Gradually, other fields outside of theology (such as the study of the Classics, Natural Philosophy – what we now call Physics, etc.) used the term.

      For over a thousand years no one ever referred to medical professionals as doctors because they had nowhere near the level of academic learning and scholarship as doctors. They were referred to as physicians, barber surgeons, etc., but never doctors. The medical professions were considered trades, vocations. One has to remember that prior to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, medicine was not very good at healing the sick. There were no antibiotics, etc. People were as likely to see their local healer as a physician. So, the field of medicine was not seen as an academic field and it certainly did not require years of research, scholarship, etc.

      It is only in the last 100 years or so that medicine has advanced to the point where it does require many years of study to become a physician. However, even now, an M.D. does not have anywhere near the level of scientific training, research, and overall scholarship as your average Ph.D. in a scientific field. As such, M.D.’s are the new kid on the block. So, if an M.D. ever tries that line, “oh you have a Ph.D., then you’re not a real doctor,” then just give her the above lecture and tell her that Ph.D.’s are the “real doctors”.

  4. If a dentist is a doctor, does that mean a chiropractor is a doctor? is an acupuncturist a doctor now? Dentists are NOT doctors.
    Doctor2008: That’s what the posting was all about.

  5. Don’t forget not all physicians (Doctors) are MDs. In America, some doctors are DOS (Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine). DOs are real doctors and go through medical schools just like MDs. AMA, American Medical Association, states that “A DO (Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine) is a physician just as an MD is a physician.”

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