Doctor or ‘medical provider’? One doctor’s perspective

Jeff Severns Guntzel
Senior reporter
Public Insight Network

“I am used to being called a ‘medical provider’ instead of a doctor or a physician these days,” writes Dr. Hans L. Duvefelt, who has a family practice in rural northern Maine, “but it makes me think about the implications of our choices of words.”

Duvefelt, who blogs at A Country Doctor Writes, cites a 2011 article in The New England Journal of Medicine on the implications of the term ‘medical provider’:

“…care is fundamentally a prepackaged commodity on a shelf that is ‘provided’ to the ‘consumer,’ rather than something personalized and dynamic, crafted by skilled professionals and tailored to the individual patient.”

He also muses at length on the fascinating and surprising history of the more traditional titles.

“The 800-year-old word ‘doctor’ is Latin for Church father, teacher, adviser and scholar … ‘Doctor’ is used as a title for physicians in many languages, even if other words – like physician – are used to describe the professional role of a medical doctor.

“Those other words are often less than flattering in their derivation or usage. Physician, for example, comes from physic, the Latin word for natural science and art of healing, which is noble enough. Less noble is the use of the word physic for a laxative due to the common practice of purging by physicians of the past.

“In Medieval times, both physicians and their commonly used blood-sucking worms were called leeches. The Middle English word leche has lived on in many languages’ words for doctors: Läkare (Swedish), læge (Danish) and lääkärit (Finnish). These words are similar to the Indo-European lepagi. It means talk, whisper and incantation and is thought by some to be the true origin of the Scandinavian words for physician.

“The Russian word for physician, врач (pronounced vratch), is uncannily similar to врать, which means talk nonsense or lie, and ворчать, mutter. These similarities also harken back to ancient and mysterious rituals of physicians of the past.”

 The Russian reminds me of the definition Ambrose Bierce gave for physician in The Devil’s Dictionary, his sardonic English language reference book, published in 1911:

Physician, n. One upon whom we set our hopes when ill and our dogs when well.”

Etymology aside, Duvefelt concludes, “Neither the words nor the business model can change what patients need when they are ill or frightened. They need more than generic providers; they each need a human being with knowledge, wisdom and compassion.”