Doctor, Nurse; Nurse, Doctor

We can be whatever we want.

We can be whatever we want.

In the hospital and environs where I’m interning, there is a very pervasive mindset: all males are doctors, all females are nurses. Let me try to explain.

My medical school requires medical students to wear a specific style of white gown (female) or white shirts, black ties and black trousers (male). Nursing and medical laboratory students have uniforms that are variations of this theme. Good lord. I could fully expect to be called “Nurse!” at least twice a day. I’m not even kidding. I could understand it from patients or people in the hospital who just wanted directions or something, but the people who really annoyed me were those who yelled “Nurse!” at me just because I was passing by their house/shop/motorcycle on my way to/from school. Yay for street harrasment.

I don’t know if it’s gotten better now that I’m a doctor. I wear work clothes, with a ward coat over it all, same as the male doctors and still get called “Nurse!” Meanwhile, any man, any man at all, can throw on a ward coat and be called “Doctor”.

Now, I generally don’t mind being called a nurse. For one, there are clear demarcations between doctors’ duties and nurses’ duties, so I pay no mind to patients who mistake me for a nurse, and with time, they usually cotton on to the fact that yes, this female is a doctor. *gasp*

Secondly, being called a nurse isn’t like a racial slur or being called “Witch!” Nursing is a noble profession, a contemporary of medicine. I know a lot of wonderful, competent nurses, who with their many years of experience, can do much more than I, a “beginner” doctor. Sometimes I watch them at work, when they’re doing something I can’t yet do.

When I think that the person calling me a nurse has no ulterior motives, I see it as a mistake, a mislabel, like calling me an accountant. If anyone called me an accountant, I’d ignore them for a while, then maybe if they got insistent, I’d say, “I’m not an accountant, but if you need one, I can direct you to their offices.” Problem solved.

What makes me want to scream in frustration is the sheer prejudice, the endemic belief that a woman cannot possibly be a doctor, that she must be a nurse because women are inferior to men and nurses are inferior to doctors, therefore woman = nurse. AARGH.

People with this belief will insist on addressing me as a nurse, even when I politely correct the supposed misnomer. They just can’t imagine it.
Male and female, young and old are guilty alike, although the younger people tend to autocorrect, probably because a greater proportion of them are educated.

I could give so many examples. One time, I was attending to an elderly man and his [female] relatives, and I had to bring in a [male] colleague from another unit as a consult. I went away to retrieve something, and I returned to hear the women talking about “the real doctor, you know, the man”. I interrupted them like, “Excuse me, but I’m your doctor, your real doctor, and I will be until the higher-ups decide otherwise. Any problems, you talk to me. Okay?”

A few years ago, a respected elderly female professor was doing her rounds, with a young male intern taking notes and carrying out orders, when a patient thoroughly shunned her, calling her a nurse and insisting on talking to the [male] doctor. The poor intern was aghast. I never heard how/if the professor reacted.

There is so much baggage to unpack in this phenomenon. I wrote this blog post because of an encounter I had with a male colleague, someone I didn’t even know, who walked up to me as I was walking home from work and asked me, “How do you feel when you’re called a nurse by people?” I replied, “Excuse me?” “Oh, I was just wondering, because I don’t know how you ladies stand it.” And he walked away, leaving me stunned.


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