The Eternal Student at the doctor’s heart

(As publishing in the Business Day Health News, 25th April, 2012)

You’ve been handed the card of a professional who has come highly recommended. In fact, she’s all the rage and what’s more she’s a doctor. But having the title “doctor” is not reserved for bedside examinations, “take two aspirins and call me in the morning”, or “my son, the doctor”.
The Real Doctors

The real doctors, historically-speaking, were those with doctorates. Yes, the bespectacled academic scribbling away on his blackboard behind a dusty desk preceded the “is there a doctor in the house” stethoscope-wielding hero, who saved the president from choking on a chicken bone. Back in the day, the title of “doctor” belonged only to those scholars who had dedicated their lives to learning and teaching. They had obtained the approval of their peers in a chosen field of study and were only awarded the title well into middle age. These eternal students added substantially to a theoretical base through a doctoral dissertation, and were only honoured with the title at the culmination of their life’s work. Medical graduates gained the title as a courtesy, a convention which is still applied today, since it is not a requirement to have completed a PhD thesis in order to graduate as a doctor in South Africa. However, over the years, the title has been usurped by the medical profession, with the title “doctor” becoming synonymous with “physician”, leaving those with doctorates mumbling justifications. (This confusion may be more prevalent in Anglophone countries as the French médecin, Greek iatros and German Arzt seem to be less affected by this doctor-doctor issue).
South African Doctors

In South Africa, the net of the doctor title is cast wide enough to include medical practitioners, vets and dentists. The common denominator is a Bachelor’s Degree (in Medicine and Surgery, Veterinary Science or Dentistry, respectively). It is recognised that these are no ordinary degrees, as they are geared towards highly-regarded professions with rigorous academic programs. However, they are academically speaking, well below the level of a doctorate.

However, those who choose to climb the academic ladder are not award Super-Doc status (except in Germany where even triple-doctor titles exist), so the glass ceiling title-wise is reached with the first albeit, trying, award of a degree. Specialisations do not adjust prefixes but rather, confer status as a string of letters after the physician’s name, who is now a fellow of a college. Ironically, male doctors in the UK, who climb up the specialisation ladder to become surgeons, revert to the title of “Mister”, apparently in honour of their tradesman roots.
Alternative Doctors

Adding another layer to the doctor debate is the fact that the title is also granted to homeopaths (and chiropractors), though they gain entry to the alternative doctor club with a Master’s Degree. Presumably, the courtesy is granted due to the fact that their six-year degrees are heavily bent towards the medical sciences, allowing them to examine, diagnose and treat patients. Although the general public is unlikely to mistake their dentist or vet for their GP, it may not be clear that the “doctor” they have consulted is a homeopath. Confusion may result as it may not be immediately obvious from the consultation or the setting that the homeopath’s prescription options are limited to remedies, supplements and herbs. Similarly, hospitalised patients may be confused when introduced to Dr. Smith, their nurse, who has a doctorate.

The debate touches the heart of the depth-breadth rift, theory-practice divide and the rules versus their exceptions in real life. Although we may hanker for Middle-Aged prestige bestowed upon scholars with theological dedication to their subject, the truth is that doctorates are now awarded to learners at the beginning of their careers. Likewise, courtesy doctor titles are endowed to novice medical practitioners, be they homeopaths, dentists, chiropractors or medical consultants- who have yet to prove themselves in practice.

Regardless of academic hierarchies, being honoured with the title “doctor” in whichever capacity should be perceived as a practical, life-long learning experience that extends well beyond middle age. Dedication is the only pre-requisite.

By Dr Deroukakis – a homeopath who specialises in the treatment of children at Paedia'tricks'.
The Eternal Student at the doctor’s heart