Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

“What’s Your Name?” I Ask My Students

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on July 26, 2012

The Clinical Practicum, the name for my class on child psychotherapy for UCLA Child Psychiatry Fellows, is, as the name implies, a “practical” class about how to begin treatment with children. My seven students are licensed physicians, able to practice as an adult psychiatrist, but wanting, for various reasons, to pursue further training in child psychiatry. The group hovers around thirty, which, of course, is the new twenty, or so people say. “So, what should your seven-year old patient call you?” I ask, somewhat to the shock of my students. “Dr. Sarah” (not her real name, of course), said, making sure that the child knows she is a doctor, but that he/she should use her first name. Another student got passionate. “Oh no, I am Doctor Green. I think it is essential that the child use my last name so that they understand that we are not just playing together.” She says with conviction. “What do they call you?” Another student asks me. “Shirah,” I said. “Over the years, I have become the most comfortable with that,” I say, trying to encourage the students to do what feels right for them, rather than look for the ‘right answer’. “My goal is to make you guys more conscious of your choices. The idea is that whatever they call you is going to set up a frame on the relationship which may or may not add meaning to the treatment. Deciding how you want to be addressed is a very serious matter.” I say, highlighting the idea that every decision, every interaction with the child and his/her parents, is, to use an overused expression, grist for that therapeutic mill.  The end of the class was very similar to how it began. There were questions. No conclusions were drawn. I like that.

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4 Responses to ““What’s Your Name?” I Ask My Students”

  1. Jon said

    Are questions and questioning more important than conclusions? Questions can make a sentient creature look deeper into a situation and unstated assumptions of that situation. Again, let’s us go back to the time Ancient Greece, to the time of Socrates. What is the Socratic Method? (What is a rhetorical question? :>)

    In this post, the power of names and naming is explored. You have asked each new physician to question how to use this power. Is there enough sentience in your students to see that this power is real? Will the new physicians know how to use this power for the good (as all good superheros must :>) ?

    • Shirah said

      As we discussed in today’s class, sometimes being called “doctor” is an important reminder to them, as they are rookies, they sometimes forget. Having said that, I am not sure that anyone ever appreciates the power they have. This is grist for further posts, so thanks.

  2. Shelly said

    Being rookies, they wear the badge of Medical Doctor proudly and find it difficult to let go of that title, even if it would set up a barrier between the doctor-patient relationship. Being an adult, I wonder what difference it would make if I called my therapist “Dr. Green,” or “Tom” (for example). Would it change how I thought of him or his advice? I would still know that he was a medical doctor giving me the benefit of his years of experience. To me, calling him “Dr.” would be artificial and would be a barrier to my being able to trust him with anything personal that I would like to tell him, because the artificiality of the title implies a formality that simply does not need to be there. But that’s just me. When these young rookies relax a little, maybe they’ll change their minds and let down their guards a bit, and perhaps will better gain the trust of their patients.

    • Shirah said

      Thanks, Shelly. Growing into a physician is a challenging developmental progression, where each person has their own journey, often shaped by both their patients and their mentors. Like child development itself, lifelong attitudes are often formed in these critical years of training. I feel privileged to have these discussions, both with you and with my trainees. Thanks Again.

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