I am a physician, and I am proud of it. I am also a writer, an editor, an adventurer, a business owner, a daughter, a dog lover—you get the point.
My career is an important part of my life, but it does not define who I am.
“What do you do for a living?” is one of the first questions strangers ask each other. I find this frustrating, because I would rather get to know someone in other ways. I usually respond by saying, “I am in medicine,” or “I work in a hospital; what about you?” This often shifts the conversation, but not always.
Sometimes, this answer is followed by the question: “Are you a nurse?” This also frustrates me, because it follows the false stereotype that every female in medicine must be a nurse.
I like to keep a low profile
Being a physician comes with prestige, whether you like it or not.
It implies that you are highly educated and well-paid. Most people don’t fully understand how hard we have worked, nor how much debt we have accumulated, to get to where we are today. They assume we are living a life of easy luxury.
If I am on an airplane, at a party, climbing a mountain, or on a dive boat, I want to be treated like any other individual. I realize that my career is a privilege, enabling me to create a life that I’m proud of, but I am still a regular person with bills, a boss, stress, and sleep issues.
"I want people to get to know me for who I am, not what I do for work, or how much money I make."
— Kristen Fuller, MD
I feel pressured to offer medical advice to strangers
Often, once strangers find out you are a doctor, they love to ask for your advice about their health ailments (or even a recent mole they discovered). Although I love educating and advising my patients about their health, I am nervous about doing this for strangers.
For starters, they are not my patients; I don't know their medical history, nor have I examined them, and I worry they may go to their regular doctor and say, “So-and-so doctor I met told me to do this.”
"I do not want to mistreat or misdiagnose and potentially cause harm."
— Kristen Fuller, MD
When strangers ask me about a health issue, I try to explain that I generally do not give advice to people who aren’t my patients, because I do not know their full history.
I don’t want to talk about work with new acquaintances
I talk about work enough while I am at work, or with my close friends and family. But when I am in public, on vacation, or at a social gathering, I want to unwind and relax. I believe there are so many other questions to ask, especially when you are traveling in a foreign country or engaging in a new activity with strangers, that are more interesting than “What do you do for work?”
I also don’t like to tell strangers I am a doctor because they treat me differently as soon as they find out.
"I am often treated with more respect, my words seem to matter more, and I feel I am held to higher standards."
— Kristen Fuller, MD
I find this to be especially true when making a large purchase, such as a house or a car. When realtors and salespeople find out you are a doctor, they see dollar signs, and their sales pitch tends to become more aggressive.
I don’t like to brag
Growing up, I was taught to avoid talking about how much or how little we had. If I came home with a glowing report card, I was told, “Good job, that’s expected.” I was taught to live frugally and live below my means; bragging about my accomplishments, status, money, dog, or house was unacceptable. Kids love to show off, but I was taught that this was not an attractive quality, and I still practice this mindset in my adult years.
I would rather praise others for their excellent accomplishments than celebrate myself.
Of course, all of the reasons I’ve listed about why I try not to disclose that I am a doctor to strangers are my own opinions and should be taken as generalizations. I know many of my colleagues and physician friends do not like saying they are a doctor for these reasons as well, but everyone will feel differently about how and when to divulge what they do for a living.
Each week in our "Real Talk" series, mental health advocate Kristen Fuller, MD, shares straight talk about situations that affect the mental and emotional health of today's healthcare providers. Each column offers key insights to help you navigate these challenging experiences. We invite you to submit a topic you'd like to see covered.