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What’s in a Female Doctor’s last name?

Publishing Date : 22 January, 2018


It is not unusual for female doctors who are married to continue using their maiden names in their profession but this has generated a lot of curiosities and controversy over the years.

These women are usually faced with some negative judgment too especially from the community.  The study of 75 women in the graduating class of 2017 at Harvard Medical School, conducted by Humphries and published in the Harvard Medical School Review in January 2015, found that 65% of single women intend to keep their maiden names, and 63% of the married women had already done so. “Most felt that marrying later in medical training would make it more likely for them to hold on to their maiden names,” Humphries wrote.

According to our Tswana culture, it is expected that once a woman marries, she changes her surname to that of her husband’s.  In fact, most people think that the law obliges a woman to adopt her husband’s name upon marriage.  This is not true. Legally it is only the woman’s civil status that changes after marriage, not necessarily her name. The Civil and national registration guidelines in most countries including Botswana does not mandate a woman to change to her husband’s surname after marriage. In fact most civil codes give the woman a number of options on how to use her name and her husband’s after she marries (NB: - this applies to all women not just doctors);

Option 1 - she may use her maiden’s first name and surname and add her husband’s surname
e.g.  Dr Antoinette Boima-Smith
Option 2 - she may use her maiden’s first name and her husband’s surname
e.g. Dr Antoinette Smith
Option 3 - She may use her husband’s full name, but prefixing a word indicating she is his wife, such as “Mrs.”
e.g. Mrs Tom Smith
 Option 4 - Not changing her maiden name entirely
e.g. Dr Antoinette Boima

Given the options above, most female doctors still opt to keep their maiden names despite the unfair judgement they expose themselves to. They have a right to make their own choices after all. So what is in a female doctor’s last name? A lot.
Professional reasons – As far as the medical profession is concerned, it is a delicate one that entails a lot of sensitive issues, governed by strict medical ethics and laws like confidentialities, consents, beneficence, non-maleficence etc.

that only a person who has undergone the training can be able to handle. So identity of a doctor remains a big issue in the medical fraternity. When a physician changes her last name, she goes through an arduous, complex, and expensive process of changing her professional documentation like medical licences, board certifications and other professional memberships.

She may need to again pass through police checks and other security clearances to render her safe to practice (under the new name).  Now imagine this; if she was to divorce, and have to undergo the same extensive process to reclaim her original surname. The changing of last names has left many female doctors not only with professional implications but emotional drag.

Personal Brand – For most doctors, it may be hard to use their husband’s surname immediately after the wedding since patients have known them with their maiden name before.  So, some will keep their maiden names and others with choose to hyphenate and add a husband’s name, so that their patients would know that they are still the same doctor they went to before, and that they only married. It takes time for patients and colleagues to adjust to her name change.

She loses “name recognition,” albeit often temporarily. Keeping the identity and the brand is very important for professional progression too. Most women in medicine are published authors, and their publications may be under different surnames, rendering their work to not receive the recognition it merits. For couples in which both partners are physicians, sharing a last name can even be problematic especially when one of them gets paged for medical service. Like one doctor who shares a last name with her doctor husband said; “it seemed that it would be confusing if someone called in the middle of the night and wanted to speak to Dr. Robbins, and we would have to ask ‘which Dr. Robbins?”

Family reasons - Commonly, names reflect one’s identity. Some names are a bridge to past generations and carry information about a person’s unique history and heritage. Some people would want to keep their last names solely for that reason and nothing to do with the medical profession. Medicine has been classified as the toughest and most expensive course by the Guinness Book of World Record, so it is not surprising that some female physicians would want to keep their surnames out of loyalty and respect for their supportive families who, in most cases, paid for their medical education.

Despite all the fuss about a female doctor’s last name, some women are proud to take their husbands’ names. They find it easier to be perceived as “one unit” with their husband. Some are facing prejudice that lessened by adopting the husband’s last name. As one doctor said, “I do not want the hospital to think that I am a single mother with a baby daddy.” Some women do not feel the need or desire to honour their family surnames for different reasons.

There are a myriad of a reasons a female doctor may choose to change or keep her last name. Whatever her reasons, they are valid and important to her. No one should be questioning her family loyalty or her professional ambition. We should respect her the way we respect her male counterparts. She should have the freedom to make a name choice without coercion or fear of judgment. It is time to stop pressuring and judging women for the decisions they make about their names and their lives. A supportive and understanding spouse is what matters in whatever the decision the woman makes regarding her name!

For comments or questions please email agboima@yahoo.com



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