When medical school classmates ask me which specialty I am applying into for residency, I answer “medicine.” That word makes sense amongst medical students, but when family friends ask me the same question and I respond with the same answer, I receive quizzical looks. For clarification, a residency program in “medicine” is shorthand for internal medicine, which deals with the treatment of adult diseases. It also has a number of sub-specialties within it.
As I progressed through training, I also learned that the word medicine has a second clinical definition. I.e., it is often used to describe treatment plans using pharmacotherapy, as opposed to other modalities. The first time I learned this was when a medical oncologist introduced himself. I asked what the difference was between a medical oncologist and other oncologists. He said, “Oncologists either burn, poison, or cut out cancer. As a medical oncologist, I poison cancer.”
With so many niche definitions of one word, how do we relate to the fact that training for all physicians goes through medical school, not surgical school or healing school. To the rest of the world, medicine is something brewed with honey and lemon to heal us from an illness, or its one of a dozen pills an old man has to take in the morning. But to physicians, our definitions of the word are chemical, pharmacologic, and vocational. The professionalization of the word medicine mirrors the jargonization of our profession more broadly. Maybe it’s time for a simplification of even our most entrenched terminology?