MFF0007: Why the word physician means something different in Australia


Medical Fun Facts logo from Gary Lum

If you watch enough television, especially American television you’d get the impression that every medical practitioner is called a physician. While it is an ancient notion that healers are physicians, in modern Australia and the UK and many other Commonwealth nations a physician has a specific meaning. It usually means a broad specialist in internal medicine.

Rather than use the generic term physician, most Australians will call their registered medical practitioner their doctor.

We also have the remnants of a fairly old approach to titles with some surgeons still preferring to be called Mr. This was very alien to me growing up and training in Brisbane. It wasn’t until I worked in Darwin that I came across surgeons who expected to be called Mr rather than Dr. I’m not sure how common this still is but I’m assured it’s dying out.

Within the medical profession, we know each other by our speciality training.

I’m a specialist microbiologist. Within my broad speciality of pathology, we have anatomical pathologists, general pathologists, forensic pathologists, chemical pathologists, genetic pathologists, hæmatologists and clinical pathologists. We all undergo training through the Royal College of Pathologists of Australasia.

Physicians receive training through the Royal Australasian College of Physicians and my closest colleagues are infectious diseases physicians, sexual health physicians and public health physicians. The RACP also has chapters and faculties, for example, pædiatricians, environmental and occupational medicine physicians, and many other specialists in internal medicine train in the RACP.

Surgeons train under the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons. I think the most important point to make and I’ll do this at the risk of upsetting some colleagues but if I needed plastic or reconstructive surgery I would want to make sure my surgeon was a fellow of RACS. I’d want to make sure my surgeon had fair dinkum training in surgery and started his or her training in a general program. There are people who call themselves cosmetic surgeons and while they are entitled to do so, it’s not always clear that they have received a good grounding in a general surgical training scheme.

I’ll end on a tired old joke.

Physicians, they know everything but do nothing being hopeless with their hands. Surgeons, they don’t know much but they do stuff being good with their hands. Pathologists, they know everything about medicine and they’re great with their hands, but it’s usually a day late and they’re handling a dead body.

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