The "P" Word
John S. Steinberg, DPM, FACFAS
So, you just sat down in your airplane seat or perhaps you just arrived at a holiday party for your spouse’s work…and IT HAPPENS. Someone asks what you do for a living, and now you have to decide what the answer will be this time. Podiatrist, foot and ankle surgeon, doctor, surgeon, foot doctor, physician, podiatric surgeon?
Everyone certainly has an opinion on this one, and since I have this great perspective space, I will use this opportunity to share with you my take on the “P” word: PODIATRY.
Our great profession has an identity crisis, and it is debated regularly. We have evolved over many decades into a medical and surgical subspecialty practiced in offices, hospitals and clinics throughout the United States. We are all Doctors of Podiatric Medicine as clearly defined by our degree, and the DPM after your name will follow you down every hallway and into every room. However, words really do matter, and the context in which you frame this degree makes a big impact. The way you present and carry yourself will weigh heavily on how you are viewed, treated and privileged.
If you think this conversation is untimely or inconsequential, consider the following: the American Board of Foot and Ankle Surgery (ABFAS) felt it mattered enough to change its name from the American Board of Podiatric Surgery (ABPS). Many state societies have removed the “P” word from their association name completely. These were not reactionary moves or overcompensation; they were well calculated and planned identity changes. I suggest we need more.
Personally, I would like to see us retire the word “podiatry.” I believe it is associated with our early history rather than the present-day medical and surgical subspecialty we practice.
So, what are our options? The two clear choices are foot and ankle surgeon vs. podiatric surgeon. In my hospital environment, I have found that the label of podiatric surgery is best as a service name and an identity that everyone can grasp. At my two practice locations in Washington, DC, we have removed the word podiatry completely. Our division name is podiatric surgery, our lab coats, business cards, signage and websites have all been rebranded to the term podiatric surgery.
The majority of ACFAS members now identify themselves and their practices as foot and ankle surgeons, according to our recent member survey. While this can cause some confusion with our MD/DO orthopaedic colleagues, it is indeed a very accurate description of what services we offer to the public. Many of you have changed your practice names and department names to reflect this evolution. The choice on best branding is one that you must make depending on your practice setting and local market influences.
Is all this “name stuff” worth the effort and expense? You bet! I can say from experience that the name change helps to secure the recognition of what is truly an evolved specialty. And it allows us to match up appropriately with our surgical colleagues: vascular surgery, general surgery, plastic surgery, orthopaedic surgery, podiatric surgery, foot and ankle surgery. Wouldn’t podiatry alone look odd on this list?
So, when I get asked on an airplane what I do for a living, my answer is, “I am a foot and ankle surgeon.” Inevitably, the conversation will progress, and I will educate them on my training as a DPM and what that means. However, in the hospital environment where there are both orthopaedic surgeons and podiatric surgeons, I believe the term foot and ankle surgeon can be confusing. But, you have to evaluate what is best for your practice, hospital, department name, etc.
Does this all make your head spin? Probably, but it’s just part of our reality. We are different, and we should be proud to display that difference while at the same time improving hat it means to be a DPM. Give it some thought, and if appropriate, make some changes to your professional identity.
Questions, thoughts, comments? Your ACFAS Board wants to hear about it. Please reach out at email@example.com.