When am I officially a doctor?

A patient calls you 'Dr' while you're on placement - should you correct them? Here's how to accurately represent your qualifications, experience and professional identity.

It's a moment many medical students dream about from the day they get their university acceptance letter: the day you can finally call yourself a doctor.

It's understandable – you’ve worked hard to get your degree, spending countless hours in the library and on placement to prepare for your exams. But when you can you officially call yourself 'Dr'? And what are the implications are of doing so?

While the term 'doctor' on its own is not a protected title, the Medical Act 1983 prohibits falsely giving the impression that you’re registered with the GMC with a license to practise. So while it can be tempting to begin calling yourself a doctor as soon as you pass your final exams, be aware of the potential for misinterpretation of your experience. This is particularly true if you are using the title in a context where your medical experience or skills are being relied upon.

To avoid this, it is safest to wait until you are registered with the GMC before using the 'Dr' title.

Be honest about your competence and experience

The GMC expects registered medical practitioners to be honest about their experience, qualifications, and current role at all times. You must therefore ensure that if you identify yourself as a doctor either in person, online or in writing that you are entirely clear about the limits of your competence and expertise.

This could come into play, for example, if while off duty you respond to a call for good Samaritan assistance. It’s important to be aware there might be other healthcare professionals available who could be better placed to help, and you wouldn’t want to deter them through inadvertently misrepresenting your experience.

Using your title on social media

Another time it might be important to think carefully is if you are considering calling yourself ‘Dr’ on social media. It is possible that your advice or opinions might be seen as more credible if you’re using the title 'Dr', even when you’re not giving medical advice.

In its guidance on using social media as a medical professional (2024), the GMC explains that, "as a medical professional, patients and the public are likely to take what you say on trust, and they may adapt their attitudes or behaviour towards their health, other medical professionals, or healthcare services as a result."

It goes on to explain that doctors must take reasonable steps to make sure that the information they communicate on social media as a medical professional is not false or misleading, and you must not misrepresent your experience and qualifications. Posting advice outside of your scope of expertise, or misidentifying yourself (even inadvertently) could leave you vulnerable to criticism as well as affecting the public’s trust in the profession more widely.

The GMC also usually expects medical professionals who are commenting on health or healthcare issues to say who they are.

What if someone calls me doctor as a student?

As a student, you may encounter a situation where a patient calls you doctor, or assumes you are qualified. It can feel difficult or impolite to correct them, but the GMC’s guidance for medical students is clear that you must make sure patients, carers and colleagues are aware that you’re a medical student and not a registered doctor.

Being honest about your experience and qualifications is important for several reasons. The first is that you must ensure your conduct justifies patients' trust in you by working within professional guidance. Second, and equally important, is that being clear with patients about the role you'll take in their care is crucial when gaining consent to undertake a history or examination for your own medical education. Patients will need to be aware that an examination performed by a medical student is not the same as one conducted by a qualified doctor.

Using your title can be an exciting step for newly qualified doctors, demonstrating the effort you have put into achieving this milestone. However, keep in mind the responsibilities that accompany this, and make sure you’re entirely clear about your experience and qualifications. This helps to maintain patient and the public’s trust and confidence in the profession.

This page was correct at publication on 30/01/2024. Any guidance is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.

Dr Rachel Stewart

by Dr Rachel Stewart

Rachel is a medico-legal fellow at the MDU, having previously worked as a clinical fellow in plastic, reconstructive and burns surgery. She graduated in 2019 from the University of Edinburgh, and it was during this time that her interest in law and medical ethics began, working as a committee member of the Medical Ethics and Humanities Society. She also enjoys teaching and mentoring, and is currently doing a part-time Master of Education degree in Surgical Education at Imperial College London.