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Hi, I’m Tony Copperfield – Actual Doctor



If and when I ever get around to writing volume three of my memoirs I have a working title in mind. It’s ‘Tony Copperfield – Actual Doctor’.

During one of the less-exciting Christmas and New Year afternoons I decided to flick through the pile of comics that had piled up by the sofa. A picture of James Robertson Justice in full on Sir Lancelot Sprat mode jumped out of the page (page 24 of the December 5th BMJ, to be exact) next to the headine ‘The title Doctor disrespects patients’.

The new Big Idea seems to be for us to introduce ourselves to patients as if we were out of work actors waiting tables at lunchtime

Bollocks. A more reasoned and cogent argument appeared at the foot of the page, penned by an actual patient. He claimed to be empowered, which is almost as bloody annoying as claiming to be an ‘expert patient’, but he wrote well. However, to save time I’m going to stick my original riposte. Bollocks.

Not too long ago it was easy to spot a doctor in a crowded hospital ward or outpatient clinic. He or she may have worn a white coat, carried a stethoscope that didn’t fall out of a Christmas cracker or had a Cuscoe’s speculum glinting in his pocket. And, and this is the important bit, colleagues would address our hero as ‘doctor’ or refer to them as ‘the doctor’ when chatting to patients and visitors.

When a doctor stood at the foot of the bed, the patient knew where they stood too.

The new Big Idea seems to be for us to introduce ourselves to patients as if we were out-of-work actors waiting tables at lunchtime: ‘Hello, I’m Tony and I’ll be looking after you today. I really think you ought to go with the pharmacist’s special. It’s tramadol with a side-order of furosemide served on a nest of stir-fried 14G catheters.’ At risk of repeating myself, bollocks.

The title ‘doctor’ doesn’t enjoy any particular legal status, unlike physician, dietician, dentist, surgeon or GP, but decades of common usage have defined it to mean exactly what every patient knows it means – someone with a medical degree or, at a pinch, a dental or veterinary qualification. Not a nurse. Not a physician’s assistant. Not a ward clerk. Not a physiotherapist. Not a phlebotomist. Not a pharmacist. Not a paramedic. Not, especially not, a sodding consultant upper limb function recovery specialist or whatever occupational therapists are calling themselves this month.

No, a doctor is a doctor. Even if the patient is a doctor. Even if the patient is a medically qualified doctor as opposed to someone who knocked out a 10,000-word dissertation on the mating habits of the northern hairy-nosed wombat at the University of Wollongong.

Anyway, it’ll never catch on. When people get properly ill, after they’ve shouted for Mummy and then realised that there’s very little chance that Mummy is an actual interventional cardiologist, they’ll shout for a doctor. An actual one.

Dr Tony Copperfield is a GP in Essex. You can follow him on Twitter @DocCopperfield