Don’t Call Me ‘Provider’

“Healthcare provider” connotes a commodity, a widget. We doctors, nurses, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants are much more than that.

Photo by Malcolm Lightbody on Unsplash

The room was full of doctors, nurses, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants. The speaker to this audience referenced the word “providers,” in an effort to be inclusive. When hearing that term, “provider,” a doctor in the room yelled out, “Physician!”

More and more, I see physicians, nurses, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants being called “healthcare providers,” or “providers” for short. The reason is understandable: having to say (or type, or write) “physicians, nurses, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants” time and time again becomes tiring. The term “provider” is short and encompasses all of those people in one fell swoop. And, it is not technically wrong: as a physician, I indeed “provide healthcare” to the patients I see in the community I serve.

I can’t stand it.

I am a doctor. I went to medical school after having worked my butt off in college to get stellar grades. After four years of a grueling medical education — accumulating hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt in the process — I spent six years working dozens upon dozens of hours per week for less than minimum wage (I trained in the era before residency work hour restrictions). I had to go through all of that to be given the privilege (and honor) to be called “Doctor.”

For someone to then call me a “provider,” it is a slap in the face. It diminishes everything I have done and continue to do as a physician working in the intensive care unit (I am a critical care specialist). To me, the term “provider” connotes that I am a cog, a gear, a tool in a big machine.

Indeed, healthcare has become more and more corporate: hospital systems are consolidating; insurance companies are merging and employing physicians; and more and more physicians are being employed by large corporate entities.

And, it may very well be the case that we physicians (and nurse practitioners and physician assistants) are becoming just that: cogs in a very large corporate healthcare machine. That change is unnerving, especially since — once upon a time — we physicians were at the top of the healthcare pyramid. Perhaps my resistance to being called a “provider” is a passive aggressive way to register my resentment, as a physician, at being kicked off the top of that pyramid.

But, I worked really hard to earn the title “Doctor.” I sacrificed a lot of my life to earn my M.D. degree. While I don’t go around telling people, “Please, call me Doctor,” I still feel a tremendous sense of honor at the title, and I am grateful to God every day of my life that I have been given the privilege to earn a good living work to heal His children who have become sick.

“Provider” strips all that awe and honor away from being called “Doctor” and turns me into a nameless, faceless widget. The same goes for those colleagues of mine who have become nurse practitioners and physician assistants. They have worked very hard to earn those titles, and “provider” ruins all of that.

So, what should we be called? First of all, we can’t all be called “physicians” because, there are more and more nurse practitioners and physician assistants who are working side-by-side with physicians in hospitals and offices all across our country. And, it must be said, my fingers have become tired having to type “doctors, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants” over and over again in this post. If not “provider,” then what?

One large healthcare organization I spoke with said that they decided to use the term “Doctors and APPs” when referring to the clinical staff who are seeing patients. “APP” stands for “Advanced Practice Provider” (yes, yes, the irony has not been lost on me). In their organization, many physicians, just like me, objected to the term “provider.”

I also like the term “clinician.” For me, a “clinician” is someone who uses his or her clinical skills to treat and heal the sick, just like a “technician” uses his or her technical skills to solve a problem. While I do admit that many may see no difference between “clinician” and “provider,” for me, it is much more appetizing and brings much less revulsion than the word “provider.”

Yes, this may really be a “first world problem.” And, I admit that my objection to the term “provider” may really come from an underlying arrogance in me because I am a doctor. I sincerely hope and pray that is not the case.

We doctors, nurses, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants are much more than cogs in a big machine. We are much more than just “providers.” We are human beings who have answered the calling of working in healthcare — and sacrificed so much in answering that calling — to help heal the sick and make them feel better. Being called a “provider” does not do that important work justice.