Be wary of who you call 'doctor'

Kenyans are having enough rough times dealing with medical doctors and their malpractices

In Summary

• We need to know who can help us with what when the time of need comes

A patient collapses after taking pills
A patient collapses after taking pills

I have long been an avid opposer of the way Kenyans throw around the title ‘doctor’ willy-nilly. Let’s be clear here that by using the title ‘doctor’, I mean medical professionals and not academic doctorate PhD holders.

Medical professionals in Kenya, including pharmacists, clinical officers, physiotherapists, dentists and, of course, medical officers, are bestowed the title ‘doctor’, whether formally or informally. For starters, I argue that to avoid confusion, why not stick to traditional forms of titles. If a person has graduated with a bachelor’s in medicine, let it be bestowed upon them the deserving title of ‘doctor’. If a pharmacist has graduated in his Bachelor of Pharmacology, let him be known as ‘Pharmacist John’. And so on and so forth.

One might argue that it’s semantics really, but I find that there is need for clarity and we must be able to distinguish between these people from different branches of medicine. We need to know who can help us with what when the time of need comes. The ambiguous doctor titles are somewhat confusing.


Have you ever met somebody who told you they are a doctor in real life? The question that follows, more often than not, is, “What kind of a doctor are you?” Even on long flights, the cabin crew always request for ‘doctors’ to identify themselves. My question then is, would a pharmacist identify himself as a doctor? If he cannot identify himself as a doctor in the sky, then why should he get to enjoy a title reserved for a trained medical doctor on the ground?

As it is, Kenyans are having enough rough times dealing with medical doctors and their malpractices. So much so that we cannot start wondering whether we are being treated by a medical officer or a clinical officer. The stories of malpractice and misdiagnosis in Kenya are ever horrific. Who could forget the case of the mistaken identity brain surgery patient? Doctors at Kenyatta National Hospital spent hours performing brain surgery on the wrong patient! Kenya became the laughing stock of the world. If such errors could happen in big hospitals, imagine what else is going on behind the scenes in smaller medical practices.

I, for one, do not have to imagine. A few weeks ago, I took my mother to a neighbourhood practice that my family has been going to for years. The doctor/owner is a trained medical officer who has owned his practice in our community for as long as I can remember. Since he is older and perhaps engaged elsewhere, he has started letting younger doctors fill in for him.

On this fateful night, we were received by a young female attending doctor. I didn’t see her credentials, but I am pretty sure she must have been a Medical Training Institute graduate in one of the medical courses offered there. She checked for malaria; it was negative. She checked for dengue fever; it was negative. She proceeded to tell us that although dengue fever was not indicated on the test, she highly suspects it is dengue that hasn’t manifested itself yet, and that we should take medicines for it.

I was appalled! I almost grabbed my mother by the elbow and dragged her out of there. This woman was spending an inordinate amount of time trying to justify that dengue was undetectable in the first stages and that to be safe, we should still treat it because of her ‘suspicion’.

I tried to imagine most of the people in my community being coerced in such a situation. Most of them uneducated and unwilling to go toe to toe with a ‘doctor’ in a reasoning debate. Perhaps my own mother might have been pressured into taking the medicines had I not been there.

The rules need to change. The ‘doctor’ title should not be taken so lightly. We need to clearly indicate each person’s title according to their qualifications.