On more than one occasion I have heard people scoff under their breath at the idea of calling a Ph. D a doctor. A Ph. D friend of mine who is a leading researcher of infectious diseases recently recounted a dinner conversation in which he was confronted with a refrain all too common to academic researchers, ‘But you’re not a REAL doctor, are you?’
Forget for a second the balls it takes to say this to the face of a guy who has been the smartest guy in almost every room he’s ever walked into. The comment itself, and the similar sentiment that many people outside of science hold, conveys a deep misunderstanding of science and medicine. The truth is, it’s physicians who are the ‘fake doctors’.
This is not meant to insult physicians it's just a reality of the medical world. Obviously every physician has the right to call themselves a doctor, if for no other reason than the evolution of the language has made it appropriate. But it is ironic that the Ph. Ds are the ones labelled the 'fake' doctors. Most MDs (Medical Doctor) do not hold Ph. Ds and are no more ‘doctors’ than an attorney (Juris Doctor) is. Unless they are the top tier of MDs who also have a Ph.D. and conduct research, most physicians are really just specialized medical personnel, no different than a nurse or surgical technologist, save for a few extra years of training.
And while many physicians pursue science during their undergrad years, some do not. Add to that a system of medical schools with varying commitments to actually educating physicians in the science behind the practice of medicine and you have a population that can be as scientifically ignorant as the patients they see.
None of this is meant to insult physicians in the slightest. I've said it twice now so please don't get mad at me. I have friends that are physicians, I have family that are physicians and most importantly, my physician is a physician. I can piss off the first two but the third is someone I don't want to have a 'spit in his food' mentality.
Some of the smartest, most scientific practitioners of both medicine and research are Medical Doctors. Some physicians have even used their medical base to actively promote science like my arch nemesis, Dr. Steven Novella. The vast majority of medical doctors tend to adhere to the scientific method and are usually much more scientifically literate than the average person.
Unfortunely, despite the majority of scientifically literate physicians, the minority has enough sway to necessitate the term 'Science-based Medicine' instead of just 'Medicine'. Some have even used the credentials of the medical term ‘doctor’ to promote pseudoscience that no physician with a research background could ever ethically recommend. It is worth distinguishing between the Medical Doctor as a trusted source for sound medical advice and a Medical Doctor as somehow able to circumvent the scientific process and take untested and dubious claims to the public disguised as legitimate medicine.
The difference with Ph. D’s is that not only do these ‘doctors’ actually understand the research, they have contributed to it. Ph. D programs themselves are research-based and applicants are not only expected to learn and master the available knowledge on their topic of expertise, they’re expected to add to it. Part of any doctorate program is a dissertation or thesis that provides novel, first-hand research that the applicant presents, defends and publishes. This means that not only are the Ph. Ds the ones who truly understand medicine, they’re the ones who actually wrote the book.
All medicine is based off of the science that these Ph. Ds conduct and compile. Medical Doctors are simply the practitioners of that knowledge who, while very well trained as practitioners, have little more to contribute on the validity of those practices than their patients do. Their job is to do whatever practice or procedure the evidence suggests they do and the job of the much more highly educated and expertly trained Ph. Ds is to evaluate that evidence and set those practices and procedures. In the pantheon of medicine, PhD researchers are the top of the ladder, not physicians. Claiming that Ph. Ds are not 'real doctors' is like claiming that military test pilots aren’t 'real pilots'. Not only are they ‘real’, they are the best of the best.
Regardless of the subject in which a person gets their PhD, they do so by showing absolute mastery of current material and first-hand research that furthers the discipline. These people are the true experts of their particular field, the individuals whom we should give credibility and credence to.
Like anything, a Ph. D is no magic guarantee that a person is right about a specific topic. They may even be wrong in the very subject that they are an expert in. But at least they are informed. At least they have some proven dedication to mastering that topic at the very highest of levels. At the very least, they earned the title bestowed upon them since medieval times: doctor.
Remember that next time you go to a physician for a diagnosis, it’s not just the doctor in front of you that dictates the treatment you get, it’s also the thousands of PhDs who did the research that the physician is consulting. Don’t just trust your physician, trust his doctors. They're not perfect, but they're literally the best we've got.