My dad suffered a stroke when I was in high school and part of his return to normalcy was working with a speech pathologist. I was fascinated by the process, and it led me to declare it as my major when I attended the University of Florida (UF) as an undergraduate. I was the first in my family to attend and graduate from college.
My curriculum and training in speech pathology intertwined with audiology, and I soon found myself drawn to its study instead. In the late 1990s, the doctor of audiology degree was still new, with few schools offering it. Upon graduation from UF, I entered an AuD program at the University of Louisville and completed my residency at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale. After eight years total of university learning, I graduated as Dr. Elizabeth (Liz) White.
My first decade as an audiologist took me all over the country where I met amazing patients and colleagues and learned about a variety of issues that affected their hearing and quality of life. My patients always treated me with the respect deserving of my training and expertise. When I introduced myself as “Dr. Liz White” it seemed to bring them ease. They hoped that I had the expertise to improve the quality of their hearing and their lives and I prided myself on filling that role.
As a young practitioner, however, I noticed a trend among co-workers. Receptionists, administrators and even physicians in other fields would leave off the “Dr.” when addressing me. When specialists would refer patients to me, I was “our girl who handles hearing” or “our girl in the back.” My protests to call me by my proper title—the one I had worked so hard to earn—fell on deaf ears—pun intended. It seemed that my title was not real to anyone but myself and my patients.
The issue came to a head in 2016 when I worked for a large private health-care group with many specialties and primary care. Though I made a habit of introducing myself as Dr. White to all of my patients, office support often addressed me simply as “Liz” in front of my patients. A fellow AuD who shared an office with me faced the same issue. Together, we appealed to the receptionists, nurses, and office administrators to address us as “Dr.” in front of patients—first verbally, and then in writing.
Our written memo was passed along to higher administration at the health-care group who then passed it along to the legal department. My colleague and I received a response from legal that defended the abandonment of our titles when being addressed. Among other reasons, the official defense of their standpoint was that referring to us using our proper title would “confuse” patients.” Only medial doctors and doctors of osteopathic medicine, according to the response, could be called “Dr.” by colleagues, including office staff.
Instead, I was instructed to introduce myself using the following:
“Hi, I’m Liz White, a doctor of audiology. Would you like me to explain what that means?”
I tried it out once. My patient was more confused than any in the past had been when I called myself “Dr.”
I was crushed. Never had I ever felt so disrespected in my entire professional life. Patients who had observed the disrespectful tone of how I was addressed, and pointed it out to me, wrote letters on my behalf to upper management. I met with a lawyer who told me a private company could do whatever it wanted when it came to official titles for employees.
It became clear to me that nothing was going to change the minds of those who made the decisions on high, and that I had no legal recourse to force them to change.
I looked at my framed doctor of audiology degree on the wall of my small office, closed my eyes, and envisioned a practice where I would be respected for my training and expertise and where the word “Dr.” was used more than “girl.” I wasn’t sure where I would go next, but I started to slowly pack up my office.
Imagine asking someone to show you the respect you deserve, for whatever the issue, and being flatly denied. Now imagine showing up for that entity, day after day, and having to externally swallow your anger and carry on? I think we’ve all faced this personally, and perhaps professionally, at some point in our lives. Eventually that toxicity becomes too much to bear and we break away, in search of the respect that we deserve and have earned.
It was 15 months before I had the finances and strategy in place to resign and open my own private practice. Today, I introduce myself to every patient as Dr. White and have all of my degrees proudly displayed. The people who answer the phones and accept packages in my office building call me that too. I use best practices and run my business with compassion.
Even 20 years after making the decision to enter the field of audiology, I keep evolving to meet the needs of my patients and further my field. I want the audiologists who come behind me to receive every bit of the respect they deserve in a field that is often taken for granted but has far-reaching implications for overall well-being. And it starts by calling the doctors among us just that.