Why not everyone who says they’re a doctor is necessarily one 93



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A vet has hung out his shingle in a shopping centre near us and his name is John Smith and he has a Bachelor of Veterinary Science and he advertises himself as “Dr John Smith”. Good grief, a vet with an undergraduate degree parading himself as a doctor – is this supposed to impress your dog or cat?

Can you imagine Rover or Fluffy turning up their noses in disgust if you took them to a vet with the same qualification but who called himself “Mr John Smith”?

Incidentally, this “Dr Smith” – not his real name – also advertises a “Senior’s Discount”. I was going to tell an elderly neighbour about this benefit but I didn’t as I realised his dog is still only a puppy so it wouldn’t qualify.

Once upon a time the title of “Dr” only applied to medical practitioners and top-ranking scientists and the like who had achieved the ultimate academic qualification of Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) and even for medicos it was and is, technically, an honorary title since most of them only have two bachelor degrees – bachelor of medicine (MB) and bachelor of surgery (BS).

Nowadays, lots of professions have appropriated the title of “Dr” which, whatever their other qualifications are, goes to prove that they have colossal egos or are suffering from massive insecurity complexes. This has become rampant in the health field where all sorts of people from the legitimate end – dentists for example – to the seriously dodgy end broadly described as “alternative health therapies” are appropriating the “Dr” title willy-nilly.

One “alternative health therapist” of my acquaintance plied her trade in what she was pleased to refer to as her “surgery” which reeked of cloying perfumed candles and which had shelves groaning with muck called “essential oils”.

There was a never-ending playing of softly twittering bird sounds and she was festooned with bangles and beads over her hand-woven caftan. Just what she did, apart from stridently abusing the medical profession on every possible occasion, I never discovered and, very obviously, she didn’t appreciate the irony in the fact that she called herself “Dr Soul” – yes, she was a doctor of the soul. I’ve been a bit reluctant to let members of the clergy – even those with legitimate Doctor of Divinity degrees – get their hands on my soul so she had no chance. Besides, I was afraid that the pyramid under which her patients were required to sit would fall and do me an injury.

So we have very dubious so-called colleges churning out chiropractors, osteopaths, acupuncturists, chiropodists and many others. You can sign up for courses in Moxibustion, Ear Candling, Bioesotherapy, Ayurvedic Medicine, Myotherapy, Aromatherapy and many, many others. And when you graduate you can call yourself “Doctor”.

The very odd thing is that the current national law adopted in 2010 and which lists professions which are regulated – everything from nurses and oral health therapists to pharmacists and medical practitioners – does not prevent any of them from titling themselves “doctor” so long as they state the type of health practitioner they are.

There is nothing in the law that limits the use of the term “doctor” or, for that matter, “physician” or “surgeon”. If chiropractors and osteopaths are already calling themselves “doctor”, there is nothing to stop pharmacists, nurses, midwives and others from doing the same thing.

Surprisingly, the Australian medical profession hasn’t protected the title of “doctor”. When it and other Australian medical bodies made a joint submission on the draft law that came into effect in 2010, the AMA did not address the issue of non-medicos using the term “doctor” and their only concern was distinguishing medical doctors from PhD holders.

The British have a unique way of addressing this problem and it is a classic case of reverse snobbery. As in Australia, all registered medical practitioners use the courtesy title of “doctor”. However when they qualify as clinicians and qualify as members of the Royal College of Surgeons, they drop the “doctor” title and revert of being “Mr”, “Mrs”, “Ms”, or “Miss”. Indeed, this practice is extending to other surgically orientated specialists such as gynaecologists.

And then there are those who try to pretend they have some serious academic qualification when they really don’t. Then Queensland Premier Peter Beattie was given an honorary PhD by the University of Queensland in 2003 and when it was discovered that on an overseas fact-finding mission he was referring to himself as “Dr Beattie” everyone fell about laughing. He quietly dropped using the title.

Then Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen also scored an honorary PhD from the same university in 1986 but at least had the good sense not to use it. Anyhow, he had a knighthood and that was so much better.

Do you think it’s time ‘Dr’ meant what it was supposed to? 

Russell Grenning

Russell Grenning is a Brisbane-based former journalist and retired political adviser who began his career with the ABC in 1968 in Brisbane and subsequently worked on the Brisbane afternoon daily, "The Telegraph" and later as a columnist for "The Courier Mail" and "The Australian". He worked for a string of senior Ministers in the Federal, Victorian and Queensland Governments as well as in senior executive public relations positions, including Assistant Federal Director, Public Relations, for Australia Post, Public Relations Manager for the Queensland Department of Main Roads and Principal Adviser, Corporate Relations, for the Queensland Law Society.

  1. There are far too many ” Quacks ” around now certainly there needs to be more control on who can give themselves a title of Doctor.

  2. My plumber and electrician call themselves DOCTORS and even carry a stethoscope and trained in CPR !!

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