Call to revise term ‘junior doctor’

by Tim Tonkin

Terminology risks public taking a demeaning attitude to experienced professionals, conference hears 

Location: UK
Published: Friday 7 July 2023

‘That which we call a rose…’

Shakespeare so often has the right words for a situation, but there was one debate at the BMA annual representative meeting in July, where Juliet’s famous line on names not mattering would simply not have cut it.

That which we call a ‘junior doctor’ feels vile esteemed by the title, and they would argue it entirely fails to capture the weight of responsibility required.

Staffordshire foundation year 1 Sai Ram Pillarisetti told the ARM: ‘This title of junior doctor has proven misleading and indeed demeaning to the general public, it may imply lack of experience or competence, creating a misunderstanding about the work we do and the qualifications we hold.’

There was nothing junior about their responsibilities, he said, adding that the title failed to distinguish between doctors with differing levels of experience.

‘Every day these so-called junior doctors act as the first point of contact for sick and unwell patients on the ward, they’re in theatre operating on your loved ones, and they're leading teams across various specialties in our health service,’ he said.


Avoid ‘trainee’

This has been a subject of debate for some time.

Consultant orthopaedic surgeon Scarlett McNally was asked last year to write a report by Health Education England. A survey conducted for the report found more than three-quarters found the term ‘junior doctor’ inappropriate and almost half thought ‘trainee’ should be avoided.

Professor McNally recommended four titles – foundation year ones, central doctors, registrars and consultants. Central doctors would generally be within five years of qualification, and largely occupy the ground previously held by senior house officers.

The difficulty inherent in any renaming exercise was acknowledged at the ARM by East of England anaesthetics trainee Ciaran Scott who said that attempting to educate the public about the capabilities and responsibilities of junior doctors might be a better use of time.

Recognising the challenges highlighted by Dr Scott, Manchester medical student Noor Al-Saffar said, however, that abandoning the ‘junior’ title was the right and an important step in redefining the way doctors were perceived.

‘There have been several anecdotal studies which have shown that junior doctors have experiences where patients have asked for a senior doctor because they don't believe in the competency of these doctors,’ she said.  

The motion urged the BMA to discontinue the use of the terms ‘junior doctor’ in all forms of communication, and use ‘doctor’ instead.

What was clear from the debate is that experience comes thick and fast to doctors, and that there is nothing ‘junior’ about what any doctor has to do. As Shakespeare said, perhaps more helpfully: ‘Experience is by industry achiev'd, And perfected by the swift course of time.