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Doctor: What’s In A Name?

My friend and fellow blogger David Kroll just wrote an interesting post about the use of “doctor” as a title for a wide range of expertise, including medical. The discussion reminded me of the usual misunderstandings associated with my title…

Typical Val conversation with lay strangers:

Dr. Val: “Hello, I’m Dr. Jones…”

Person: “Oh, hi Dr. Jones. What kind of doctor are you?”

Dr. Val: “A medical doctor.”

Person: “Oh, so you’re like, a pediatrician?”

Dr. Val: “No, my specialty is rehabilitation medicine.”

Person: “Oh, my uncle has a drug problem. He’s been in and out of rehab for years. I’m so glad that there are people like you willing to help addicts.”

Dr. Val: “Uh… Well, actually my specialty is focused on physical rehabilitation – like patients with spinal cord injuries, amputations, strokes, car accidents, etc…”

Person: “Oh, so you’re a physical therapist?”

Dr. Val: “No, I’m a physician. But I work closely with physical therapists.”

Person: “So you’re a REAL doctor?”

Dr. Val: “Yes, I went to Columbia Medical School…”

Person: “Well, you don’t LOOK like a doctor.” [See example here]

Dr. Val: “Uh… thanks?”


Dr. Val: “Mom, why don’t people believe I’m a medical doctor?”

Dr. Val’s Mother: “Well, you picked an oddball specialty, dear.”

Dr. Val: “What’s oddball about helping the disabled population?”

Dr. Val’s Mother: “Well, you know ‘rehabilitation’ usually conjures up ideas of drug rehab.”

Dr. Val: “Yeah, my specialty has the weakest PR in all of medicine. Nobody knows what we do.”

Dr. Val’s Mother: “At least people don’t think you’re a hypnotist.”

Dr. Val: “What?”

Dr. Val’s Mother: “Did I ever tell you about the time I was on an elevator with someone at a Spanish literature convention?”

Dr. Val: “Uh…”

Dr. Val’s Mother: “My tag said ‘Dr. Sonia Jones, member of the American Association of Hispanists.’ A woman in the elevator with me was staring at my name tag and finally blurted: ‘Are you here with the convention?’ And I said, ‘yes.’ And then she responded: ‘Could you hypnotize me too?!'”

Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science Is Planning To Honor Quackery

David Kroll, Ph.D. and I share more than an appreciation for bibs and crab legs (pictured at left during our recent “academic” rendezvous) – we are pro-science bloggers who want to understand the evidence for (or against) health treatment options, both in the natural product world and beyond. At our recent meet up at The Palm we discussed homeopathy – a bizarre pseudoscientific approach to medicine often confused with herbalism. Homeopaths believe that “like cures like” (for example, since an onion causes your eyes to water and nose to run, then it’s a good cure for a cold) and that homeopathic remedies become more potent the more dilute they are. So if you want a really strong medicine, you need to mix it with so much water that not even a molecule of it is left in the treatment elixir. Of course, homeopathy may have a placebo effect among its believers – but there is no scientific mechanism whereby tinctures of water (with or without a molecule of onion or other choice ingredient like arsenic) can have an effect beyond placebo.

David graduated with his B.S. in toxicology from one of the most prestigious schools in the country, the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science (PCP&S). In the early 1900s PCP&S graduates were critical players in combating snake oil hucksters and establishing chemical standards, safety, and efficacy guidelines for therapeutic agents. So it was with utter amazement that he received recent news that PCP&S was planning to award an Honorary Doctorate of Science to a major leader in homeopathy – on Founders’ Day, no less.

“Our founders would be rolling in their graves,” David told me. And he wrote a letter of complaint to the University president which you can read here. This is a choice excerpt:

Awarding Mr. Borneman an Honorary Doctor of Science is an affront to every scientist who has ever earned a degree from the University and, I would suspect, all current faculty members who are engaged in scientific investigation. Homeopathy is a fraudulent representation of pharmacy and the pharmaceutical sciences that continues to exist in the United States due solely to  political, not scientific, reasons. Indeed, homeopathic remedies are defined as drugs in the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act [21 U.S.C. 321] Section 201(g)(1) as a result of the 1938 actions of U.S. Senator Royal Copeland (D-NY), a noted homeopath of his time. But scientifically, homeopathic remedies are nothing more than highly-purified water misrepresented as medicine based upon an archaic practice that is diametrically opposed to all pharmacological principles.

Honoring people who actively promote pseudoscience is wrong in many ways as David points out. I would also add that doing so confuses the public. If academic institutions committed to scientific integrity lend their names to cranks, then it makes it more difficult for the average person to distinguish quackery from science. I have the utmost sympathy for the patients out there who are trying to figure out fact from fiction in medicine. That is why I have a “trusted sources” tab on my blog – please click on them for guidance regarding health information you can trust.

As for PCP&S, if they value their academic principles (as no doubt many within the organization do) the president should rescind his offer to honor Mr. Borneman’s “entrepreneurial spirit” on founder’s day (February 19th, 2009). Finding a way to sell water to people as cures for their diseases is certainly entrepreneurial – but I see nothing honorable about it. I hope that President Gerbino sees the light before founder’s day.

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