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Should I stop patients calling my colleague a ‘lady doctor’?



‘Nice to meet you, Mrs Smith,’ I said, shaking hands with the patient and offering a chair. ‘Now, I believe last time you were here you saw my predecessor…’  I started to flick back to the last clinic letter to find a name.

‘Yes, that’s right,’ said Mrs Smith. ‘The lady doctor.’

‘Oh, you mean a gynaecologist!’ I replied.*

‘Lady doctor’ is a term I’ve heard used to mean ‘gynaecologist’ innumerable times over my career so far and it never ceases to make me smile – not least because there is the very faintest of implications that I must, therefore, be the ‘man doctor’: a big, hairy man doctor, capable of lighting barbeques and reading maps at a moment’s notice – although obviously not at the same time, because that would be multi-tasking.

And I’ve always thought it laughable that it’s the female doctors who seem to acquire an adjective, given they are in the majority. Surely it’s us men who should be highlighted for our gender? But that doesn’t ever seem to be the case.

The phrase always makes me smile, and I always take it to be meant without offence – but am I doing my colleagues a disservice? Should I be challenging such gentle sexism? If the adjective were foreign, or Indian, would that be any more or less offensive?

If I’m referred to as the tall doctor it doesn’t bother me (if anything it adds to my sense of manliness). But tall people haven’t been discriminated against in the same way that women and other minority groups have, so perhaps I should be taking some gentle offence at this gentle sexism. 

And at least foreign, Indian and tall are all (technically) adjectives. ‘Lady’ is not. ‘Lady doctor’ sounds like something that is different from a doctor.

But the patient clearly isn’t meaning any offence. Who am I to challenge them? The patient has come to see me because, in some way, they need to be cared for. Pointing out their inadvertent sexism and misuse of grammar would probably stymie the consultation somewhat. It’s not like she’s effing and blinding about something, which I could reasonably object to. I suspect she’s too much of a lady for that.

*Admittedly I said this in my head, a long time after the consultation ended.

Dr Tim Cassford is a GPST2 in Chichester