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“Doc Steinberg?”


The New Physician April 2004
“Have a nice day, doc,” the clerk said as he handed my bag of groceries to me. At first I was wondering to whom he was talking, since I was just a third-year and other than my OR scrubs, there was little to suggest I had a connection to the medical field. Aside from jokes made by friends and family, this was the first time somebody called me “doctor” outside a hospital. In the hospital, amongst a crowd of physicians, someone could be fooled into thinking I was a real doctor; however, to the trained eye, my short, white coat gave away my true status. But how many patients—and for that matter, grocery clerks—know that subtle identifier? And I certainly wasn’t wearing my coat in the checkout line.

Older physicians have erroneously introduced me as “Dr. Steinberg” on innumerable occasions during my clinical training, but they knew I wasn’t an M.D. After being incorrectly introduced, I would usually offer a proper introduction to patients who assumed I really was a doctor by making the corny, conciliatory remark, “I’m actually just a med student; you can call me Pete.”

If the man on the street assumed I was a physician, then so be it. Rather than start a semantic discussion with a store clerk, I just wanted to take my bread, milk and eggs home. “Thanks,” I said to him. “You have a good day, too.”

Since this episode in May of my third year, the occurrences have increased in frequency. Now I’m even getting mail addressed to a “Dr. Steinberg,” who technically won’t exist until May 18. On that morning, I’ll awake as Peter L. Steinberg, civilian; and then, by magically donning a robe, getting hooded by a dean, obtaining a diploma and walking off stage, I’ll transform into Peter L. Steinberg, M.D.

Even my barber, Mrs. P, a woman I’ve known for almost 15 years and whose kids I used to play Little League with, is intimating she may call me “Dr. Steinberg” when I come back for a haircut after graduating. I told her it wasn’t necessary since I certainly won’t stop calling her Mrs. P—no reason to change the name you call someone after a decade, is there?

And even my mother’s friends, when they were over at the house eating cake and sharing stories, asked for a curbside from “Dr. Steinberg,” wondering if they could take nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs with beta blockers. The fact I had an answer both delighted them and, in their eyes, gave legitimacy to my ultimate title.

On May 18, as much as I would like decades of accumulated scientific knowledge and experience to seep from my diploma and into my skin, transforming me into a master clinician, I’m afraid that won’t happen. Much to my dismay, graduation will not transform this humble medical student into an all-knowing physician. Even though in a medical, legal and even social context, it will transform me into Dr. Steinberg, graduation will not make me a competent doctor. Rather, the four years of study, experience and knowledge I’ve gained—including the knowledge and heaps of information that I must still learn—will make me Dr. Steinberg, not the Latin scrawl on a piece of parchment.

The journey is the key, not an individual event like passing an exam or garnering a degree. Sure, diplomas and parties and pomp and circumstance are great. Graduation is a worthy and needed tradition, plus you can get great photos of everybody dressed presentably and the like. Still, these milestones aren’t enough to make me a skilled physician, and that diploma isn’t going to help me take care of somebody who’s sick in the middle of the night.

Starting internship in that new, long white coat, I will be no more or less a doctor than I was the day I graduated. Since I started medical school, however, there certainly is a vast difference: I am more confident around sick people; I know a few new things about health and disease, and on rare occasions, I am even downright helpful. But more than anything, graduating will merely signify how much more I need to learn and experience to become a good doctor.

So come May 18, you can call me Dr. Steinberg if you really want to. It won’t bother me, and technically you’ll be correct. But, just remember, you can still call me Pete.
Peter L. Steinberg now wears the long, white coat as a general surgery intern at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. Direct comments and questions about this article to