When Can a Medical Student Be Called a Doctor?

In this post, we discuss when a medical student can be called a doctor as well as the differences between how long it takes to become a doctor in the US and UK.

Content

  1. Quick Answer
  2. Can You Call a Medical Student a Doctor?
  3. When Can a Medical Student Be Called a Doctor?
  4. Who Can Call Themselves a Doctor?
  5. Total Time to Get the Title of Doctor
  6. Why Is a Surgeon Called Mr Instead of Doctor?
  7. Why Are Some Doctors Called Professors?
  8. Conclusion

Quick Answer

Medical students are not designated the title of doctor, however, as soon as they graduate they can start to call themselves doctors. The time taken to get to this point varies by country. In US and UK medical schools, students tend to graduate between ages 23-26.

Can You Call a Medical Student a Doctor?

Medical students should not be called doctors.

They have not yet received the full education required to be a doctor.

Even when medical students graduate, they still are training but can call themselves doctors as they have learned the fundamentals of what it takes to be a clinically competent physician.

So What Is the Title of a Medical Student?

Medical students are simply Mr or Mrs just like any ordinary citizen. 

They do not have any title as they still have a long way to go before they complete their training.

Interestingly, a final year medical student cannot call themselves a doctor even if they are about to graduate the next day.

When Can a Medical Student Be Called a Doctor?

Medical students can be called doctors as soon as they graduate from University.

They may not have started working in a hospital, and their training may not be complete, but they can still call themselves doctors after they graduate.

Who Can Call Themselves a Doctor?

To call yourself a doctor, you need an official degree or qualification from a recognised University that provides you with an MBBS or MD degree.

MBBS = Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery

MD = Doctor of Medicine

It is illegal to practice medicine if you do not have a qualification from an official body. 

After getting this degree, you still need further qualifications to do become a consultant or attending.

For example, you may see letters after a doctors name like MRCS (Member Royal College of Surgeons) which indicates that they have been trained further in that speciality and have passed all the exams to become a specialist in that field.

The title of “doctor” can also be used by someone who has a PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) which should not be confused with a medical doctor.

Someone who has a PhD has typically done original research in a field after which they produce a thesis compiling their work.

They are experts in their field and typically continue their research on the cutting edge of science.

UK

In the UK when medical students graduate, they are called junior doctors.

They are not able to call themselves fully qualified doctors until they are consultants (the equivalent of attending in the US)

When you become a consultant, you essentially are leading the team. They are the most senior grade of hospital doctors and every patient who is admitted to hospital will be assigned a consultant who is responsible for their care.

Here are the titles awarded to doctors at every level of training:

Level Title
Medical Student No title
F1 & F2
(Foundation Years)
(Junior) Doctor
Registrar (Junior) Doctor
Consultant Doctor
GP Doctor
Surgeon Mr
Academic (e.g. lecturer) Professor

UK Doctor Titles

US

The US is more simple than the UK in its naming system.

Once you graduate you are simply called a doctor (there’s no tradition of calling less senior doctors “junior doctors”).

Surgeons are also called doctors rather than Mr/Mrs. 

Level Title
Medical Student No title
Intern Doctor
Fellow Doctor
Attending Doctor
Family Physician Doctor
Surgeon Doctor
Academic (e.g. lecturer) Professor

US Doctor Titles

Total Time to Get the Title of Doctor

The time to get that acclaimed title of doctor is famous for being long and arduous.

You have to start thinking about applying to medical school from a young age and don’t become fully qualified until in your 30s.

Let’s discuss the time taken in the UK and US.

UK

In the UK, you have to ensure you have the best GCSEs possible, after which you pick the standard Maths, Chemistry and Biology for A-Levels.

After this, the route to becoming a doctor starts to vary.

Some students can directly go into medicine while others go via a graduate route where they do a non-medical degree (e.g. biology) before applying to medicine.

Below is a table for varying routes students can take in the UK as well as the typical age of becoming a doctor for each route.

Path Route Years in Medical School Age When Doctor
Standard GCSEs -> A-Level -> Medical School 5 23
Standard + BSc GCSEs -> A-Level -> Medical School (+BSc) 6 24
Standard + Gap Year GCSEs -> A-Level -> Gap Year -> Medical School 5 24
Standard + Gap Year + BSc GCSEs -> A-Level -> Gap Year -> Medical School (+BSc) 6 25
Postgraduate Medicine GCSEs -> A-Level -> Degree -> Medical School 4 25

UK Doctor Pathways

US

The US tends to take a couple more years to become a doctor than the US.

After High School, you complete a 4-year undergraduate degree after which you do medical school for 4-years. There isn’t as much variation in the pathway as the UK.

See the table below for the time to become a doctor in the US.

Path Route Years in Medical School Age When Doctor
Standard High School -> College -> Medical School 4 26
Standard + Year Out High School -> College -> Year Out -> Medical School 4 27
Direct Medical Program High School -> BS/MD Program 6 24

US Doctor Pathways

Why Is a Surgeon Called Mr Instead of Doctor?

In the UK (and other countries that have a related healthcare system), once a surgeon starts training they drop the title of doctor that they worked so hard to get and go back to being called Mr/Mrs.

Why?

Well, it is a tradition that stems from the fact that surgeons in the 1800s were originally barbers and not medical doctors.

This means surgeons were never as qualified as doctors.

However, this has of course changed.

See this 2000 paper if you want to learn more.

Why Are Some Doctors Called Professors?

“Professor” is an honorary title given by universities to doctors that have worked for them.

It is a difficult and acclaimed position in the UK, however, a lot of doctors in the US can easily become professors if they simply work for the University in any capacity. 

Being a Professor says you not only have mastered a subject but you are now able to teach this subject to others.

In the UK, there are different grades of academic doctors. Here is a list from most junior to senior:

  • ACF – academic clinical fellow
  • CL – clinical lecturer
  • CRF – clinical research fellow
  • CSL – senior clinical lecturer
  • Reader/associate professor
  • Prof – professor

Conclusion

A lot of patients don’t know the difference between doctors and medical students.

You can’t blame them as both doctors and students wear the same clothes and ask the same questions.

It is important to know the difference though because medical students can’t do the things doctors can do and they only become doctors when they graduate.

However, that doesn’t mean they have that title forever.

They can change their title to Mr if they become a surgeon or Professor if they start working for a University.

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