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Why Are Surgeons Called Mr Or Ms? (Unravelling UK Tradition)

Why Are Surgeons Called Mr Or Ms? (Unravelling UK Tradition)

Updated on: December 3, 2023
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Written By Dr Ollie

Every article is fact-checked by a medical professional. However, inaccuracies may still persist.

If you’ve ever been to hospital in the UK and had an operation, you may have noticed that your surgeon was referred to as ‘Mr’ or ‘Ms’ instead of ‘Dr.’

Considering that surgeons have been to medical school and are just as much doctors as any other physician, you may be curious as to why these titles are used.

Surgeons in the UK are traditionally called ‘Mr’ or ‘Ms’ instead of ‘Dr’ due to the fact that surgery was historically performed by ‘barber surgeons.’ These barbers didn’t have any formal qualifications, as opposed to doctors, who held a recognised medical degree conferring the title ‘Dr.’

This distinction between physicians and surgeons has persisted, even as the field of surgery evolved and advanced.

Today, the title of Mr or Ms continues to be used by surgeons to set them apart from their medical colleagues.

While this tradition is more commonly seen in the UK and Ireland, it has also been observed to some extent in Australia and New Zealand, and rarely in Canada or the United States.

The History Of Why Surgeons Are Called Mr/Ms

The practice dates back to the origins of surgery when surgeons were considered barbers or tradesmen, rather than medical doctors.

They were part of the Worshipful Company of Barbers in London (founded circa 1308) that regulated the profession of surgery and held the title of ‘master barber’.

Academic physicians, on the other hand, studied medicine at universities and belonged to the Royal College of Physicians (founded 1518), which granted them the prestigious title of ‘Doctor.’

In 1745, an agreement separated surgeons and barber-surgeons, with surgeons becoming members of the newly-formed Company of Surgeons, which later evolved into the Royal College of Surgeons.

A surgeon examining a patient’s arm circa. 1943

Despite this distinction, the tradition of calling surgeons Mr/Ms remained ingrained in the profession.

The practice signifies that a surgeon has undergone extensive training and has become a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons (FRCS), which is seen as a marker of distinction.

This title also sets them apart from their non-surgical counterparts in medicine.

Moreover, it could be argued that the use of Mr/Ms titles is rooted in a sense of humility and service.

Surgeons take pride in their skills, which involve hands-on work on the human body, and referring to themselves as Mr/Ms, rather than Dr, is a way to honour their craft while staying grounded.

What Qualifications Does A Surgeon Hold?

Surgeons in the UK undergo rigorous training and hold various qualifications to practise their profession.

After completing medical school and earning a medical degree, aspiring surgeons enter a training programme known as foundation training, which typically lasts for two years.

During this time, they gain practical experience in different medical disciplines throughout the hospital.

Upon successful completion of the foundation training, they proceed to a specialty training programme in surgery.

This stage may last up to eight years, depending on the chosen surgical subspecialty.

During their surgical training, they acquire professional qualifications, such as Membership of the Royal Colleges of Surgeons (MRCS).

The MRCS is a professional qualification recognised and awarded by the four Royal Colleges of Surgeons (Edinburgh, England, Glasgow and Ireland).

It’s at this point that a surgeon can switch from being called Dr to Mr/Miss/Ms/Mrs.

After acquiring the MRCS, surgeons may choose to pursue further specialisation by undertaking a higher specialist training (HST) programme.

Within this programme, they can attain the Fellowship of the Royal Colleges of Surgeons (FRCS), which is a higher-level postgraduate qualification demonstrating advanced surgical expertise and knowledge.

Can A Surgeon Choose Their Title?

Despite its historical origins and the customs followed in the UK and some other Commonwealth countries, the choice of title remains largely up to the individual surgeon.

Why Surgeons Are Called Mr Or Ms Pixel Infographic

Some may prefer to use the traditional title of Mr or Ms, while others may opt for Dr, which is more common in the United States and Canada.

The vast majority of surgeons I’ve ever worked with in the NHS have gone by Mr/Miss/Ms/Mrs.

It’s somewhat a badge of pride and a sign of respect, recognising that this healthcare professional has passed the requisite surgical exams to practise as a consultant surgeon.

The exception to this may be when a surgeon is introducing themselves to a patient when they might use the title ‘Doctor’ in order to clarify that they’re part of the medical team looking after them.

The Problem With Surgeons Using These Titles

Although the custom of not calling a surgeon ‘Dr’ is still prevalent today, it can create some issues in modern healthcare settings.

One of these problems is the potential confusion for patients.

In many cases, patients may not be familiar with the unique conventions of the UK medical profession, where surgeons don’t use the title ‘Dr.’

This could lead them to question whether a qualified doctor is treating them.

In an environment where trust and clarity are crucial, this confusion could harm the patient-doctor relationship.

Similarly, this custom might also create misunderstandings among international medical professionals, who may not be familiar with the UK’s conventions.

As the medical field becomes increasingly globalised, having a consistent title for all doctors, regardless of their specialisation, could promote better communication and collaboration among healthcare professionals worldwide.

Another issue is the potential lack of inclusivity in using gender-specific titles like Mr, Miss, Ms or Mrs.

With growing awareness of diversity and inclusivity in the professional sphere, there has been a push for using gender-neutral titles like Mx in the medical community.

Continuing to use the traditional Mr or Ms could alienate or exclude individuals who identify outside of binary gender norms, impacting the overall inclusiveness and progressiveness of the medical profession.

Furthermore, using different titles for different types of medical professionals could inadvertently perpetuate old stereotypes and reinforce the historical divide between physicians and surgeons.

This may hinder the unity and collaboration necessary for providing the highest quality patient care.

Global Context

Across the world, the way surgeons are addressed varies significantly.

The tradition of calling these medical professionals ‘Mr’ or ‘Ms’ rather than “Doctor” has originated in the United Kingdom but can also be found in a few other countries.

United States

In the United States, both male and female surgeons are usually addressed as ‘Doctor’ followed by their last name.

It’s rare that the tradition of calling surgeons ‘Mr’ or ‘Ms’ is followed.

Patients and colleagues commonly refer to surgeons using their professional title, which emphasises their expertise and qualifications in their field.

Australia

In Australia, the tradition of addressing surgeons as ‘Mr’ or ‘Ms’ is sometimes followed but not always.

It’s not uncommon for surgeons to be referred to as ‘Doctor’ in the same way as physicians.

Similar to the UK and other countries that follow this tradition, the title ‘Mr’ or ‘Ms’ is often seen as a badge of honour for surgeons and a distinction from other medical professionals.

Europe

Other European countries, such as the Republic of Ireland, also follow the practice of addressing surgeons as ‘Mr/Ms’; however, this may vary from one country to another.

In some parts of Europe, surgeons are addressed as ‘Doctor’ like their physician counterparts, while in other regions, the ‘Mr’ or ‘Ms’ title is used.

Surgeons’ Titles FAQs

Are surgeons in the UK called Dr or Mr?

In the United Kingdom, surgeons are traditionally addressed as Mr or Ms instead of Dr. This practice can be traced back to the origins of surgery when surgeons did not typically have a medical degree. While modern surgeons do hold one, the use of these traditional titles has persisted.

When does a UK doctor take on the Mr/Ms title?

A doctor in the UK can take on the title of Mr/Miss/Ms/Mrs as a surgeon once they’ve passed the MRCS examination. This is a postgraduate exam, formally ‘Membership of the Royal Colleges of Surgeons,’ that qualifies a doctor to enter higher specialist surgical training.

Is the title Mr higher than Dr in the UK?

The title Mr is not necessarily higher than Dr in the UK. However, it is considered an honour in the field of surgery as it signifies the culmination of extensive surgical training and expertise. In this context, the title Mr or Ms indicates that the individual is a qualified surgeon.

Are female surgeons called Mr?

Female surgeons are not called Mr. In the UK, female surgeons are traditionally referred to as Ms, Mrs, or Ms, depending on personal preference. This follows the same convention as their male counterparts, who are addressed as Mr instead of Dr.

Final Thoughts

Before digging into the history of why surgeons are called Mr or Ms here in the UK rather than Dr, I hadn’t realised how far back the tradition went.

I’ve got to admit I also hadn’t thought about whether the tradition applies in other countries across the globe, as well as the impact observing it can have on both patients and staff.

From my experience in the NHS, surgeons do prefer to go by Mr/Ms and will only jokingly pretend to be offended if you make the mistake of addressing them as Dr!

About the author
After studying medicine at the University of Leicester, Dr Ollie now works as a junior doctor in London. His interests include medical education and expedition medicine, as well as having a strong belief in the importance of widening access to medicine.