My first reaction was to cringe. I knew he was trying to get my attention. I was in the emergency room as a fourth year medical student. I couldn’t simply keep walking along as if I hadn’t heard him. Collecting myself to avoid a response driven by frustration, I paused and contemplated my words.
“How can I help you?”
“I need a bed pan.”
“Ok, well I will go find your nurse and ask for one. I am a medical student.”
“Oh, you’re a doctor?”
He asked the question as if I was the first person to tell him that women can be physicians. This is a common struggle amongst many women in medicine. I cannot imagine what Elizabeth Blackwell or Rebecca Lee Crumpler went through in the mid-1800s as trail blazing women in medicine. How did they keep their cool when staff and patients confused them for nurses? Due to these ‘sheroes’, it is no longer uncommon for a woman to walk through the wards of the hospital as a medical student or physician. Unfortunately, for reasons I cannot explain, some people can still see a woman in a white coat without realizing the possibility that she is a physician.
I, like other women in medicine, was commonly mistaken for a nurse while in medical school. Nursing is a tremendous field that takes a strong and courageous group of people. I would not be able to be a nurse; I do not have the great patience and patient interaction skills that they have. I am not a nurse, and this is difficult for some people to digest. One person once asked, “ Are you a nursing student?” I said, “ I am in medical school.” Their reply without taking a breath and thinking, was, “ What are you studying? To become a nurse?” Baffled, I stared blankly at him, looked down at my white coat to make sure it said medical student, then let out a sigh. “No,” I replied as I exited from the elevator.
Yes, it is true that more women in the health professions fields are nurses than doctors. According to the AAMC, only 30.4% of active physicians were women in 2010, and that number is significantly smaller for underrepresented women. Based on this statistic, the probability that I would be a woman in nursing is higher than that of me being a medical doctor so I do understand how people could make that mistake. However, this quick assumption should be coupled with pause to read the writing on my white coat. As much as I wish most people would make this effort, I am not finding it to be the case. So, I will have to learn how to respond.
My first thought would be to firmly say, “I am a physician!” However, this reaction would be a bit much. Instead, I take a breath, and reply. “I, am actually a physician.” I say this slowly as if I am explaining a wrong doing to a child. I dismiss their initial assumption and leave it to them to think about it. I then show them that I am a diligent, caring, and thoughtful physician. I make it my duty to take superb care of the patient, along with a stellar nurse, during their stay. At the end of their hospital stay, it is common for them to carry a tone of pride to have me as their physician. Eventually, I hope that when people see a female in a white coat, their default question will be, “ Are you my doctor?”