Thursday, 8 April 2010

When is a doctor not a doctor?

For a few months now, I have been working approximately 2 miles from where I live. On the whole, this is fantastic arrangement. The commute is a dream. I get up late, go home for lunch and am back sipping tea just minutes after the close of evening surgery. Because I meet so many local residents, I'm also beginning to feel part of a real community, something I've never experienced before in London. I know the lady who works in the designer clothes shop up the road, the vet who owns the practice across the street and the guy who runs the local off-licence. Recently however, I have started to notice that this cosy set up has some rather worrying side effects.

I'm not entirely sure what image my patients have of me, but I like to think that they view me as a sensible and conscientious professional. I therefore have no desire for them to see me trying on racy underwear in a clothes shop or buying copious quantities of gin from the off-licence. Nor do I want them sitting at the next door table when I am out for a boozy dinner with my friends (Tuesday's experience). Then there's the fear that I will be spotted by a patient in the gym changing rooms or the waxing salon. It hasn't happened yet, but the risk now seems all too real.

There's another problem too, and that's that I am now surrounded by people who know that I'm a doctor. It's one thing having friends and family solicit you with their medical dilemmas, but random patients / neighbours on the street? It's too much in my book. The idea of consultations in the queue for the butcher or a spot diagnosis at the bus stop sends shivers down my spine. It's not that I don't like helping people, but I do want a life outside of medicine and try hard to keep work and play separate.

Last year, whilst relaxing in a restaurant on holiday in Brazil, an elderly woman at a neighbouring table collapsed on the floor, mid-starter. With the usual feelings of obligation mixed with fear (no one quite realises how helpless you are as a doctor without your kit), I raced over, announcing my trade. Thankfully she recovered quickly from what turned out to be a simple faint and with her soup the only real casualty, I returned to my table. At the end of the evening the family approached us, I presumed to thank me for my heroics. I was wrong. They were not bearing gifts or hoping to shower me with praise and admiration. What they actually had in mind were a few more medical questions; 'now that we know that you're a doctor'.

So now I am concerned. What if this starts happening to me at home too? Will I be asked about athlete's foot over lunch? Will every evening out be plagued by the fear of disapproving looks from nearby patients? Will I be judged by what's in my shopping trolley?

Should I start investing in disguises?


  1. Good question - I am a teacher and run textile workshops.Textiles are part of my "earning a living" and I like to think of myself as a "professional". However -none of my friends or neighbours thinks twice about asking me for help in putting in a zip, or rescuing a complicated knitting pattern. I am sure if you were my neighbour and your expensive racy underwear needed an urgent repair (I can do lacy stuff!) you wouldn't hesitate to ask for my help - or for that matter you might ask my engineer husband for help with your plumbing.... So why can't we ask you for advice when we are your neighbours?

  2. When you are next approached for medical advice by a patient in Waitrose, you say that you cannot give an opinion without a full physical examination. When the patient starts undressing, you start walking away.....

  3. One of the GPs mentioned the very same dilemma they'd found themselves upon. Their advice to us as students was that if any of us had intentions of being a GP, to live far enough away from the catchment area as not to be recognised. As they were one of the main partners, they had a particular onus and interest to stay with their practice, therefore if it had been an issue they would felt that they would have had no choice but to move their family and home elsewhere rather than their career. Just food for thought, and I'm sure you will have considered all this before anyway!

  4. ah the professor graeme catto disguise...

  5. It's hard to answer but for me, lend your hand to those who seek for your help, it doesn't matter whether they will give you an applause for helping them for as long as you know to yourself that you have been a good to other people, not as a doctor but as a person who's willing to help.