Last week I gave in, I put aside my pride and joined Twitter. The only people that I thought might be interesting on Twitter are Ben Goldacre, Tim Minchin and Stephen Fry, so I added them and began to follow.......Oh how glad am I that I joined last week!!! Much to my delight (although probably not to my supervisors) I got to watch the unfolding of Ben Goldacre (actual Doctor) vs Gillian McKeith (not a medical doctor, dubious PhD). If you do not know what this debate is about - check out this link for a quick summary of what happened. People are covering this amazing spectacle all over the Internet as it unfolds (and I am sure there is more to come) so I am going to discuss - what does being a Doctor mean? Who is a Doctor? Can you trust people that call themselves Dr ... and what on earth is a PhD?!
Doctor type 1 - Medical Doctor, usually found in hospitals/GP surgeries looking a bit ropey due to overwork and stress. These people have studied Medicine at a university. Medical Schools in the UK are governed by the GMC, in the US they have a similar system through the AAMC. This is in order to ensure that all students with a degree in medicine are capable and educated to a certain standard. All of these courses are deemed to be 'equal' - therefore churning out equally able trainee doctors. More training then has to be carried out before medical graduates can practice as GPs, Surgeons, Consultants etc. Other countries have similar systems and to practice as a medical doctor in the UK you have to be approved by the GMC. These people are trained and well equipped to give advice on various health topics. Gillian McKeith is definitely not a medical doctor.
Doctor type 2 - PhD/Ph.D./D.Phil. Where PhD means - Doctor of Philosophy. These people are called Dr as recognition for their expertise in a certain field - usually where they have researched and studied a certain field or topic for a number of years. This is where it gets a bit complicated..
The requirements for a PhD differ from country to country but the main point is, wherever you study for a PhD you have to demonstrate that you have carried out novel, independent research. In the UK this is generally done by researching a topic for 3-5 years then summarising the work in a thesis - the PhD student is then examined on the thesis. The thesis exam or viva is carried out to to check that the thesis is PhD standard and to check that the student is worthy of being granted a PhD. Students are examined by an internal examiner (from their university - but not their supervisor) and an external examiner who is generally an expert on the PhD topic to be examined. Some countries require a presentation to a panel and a certain number of published papers before a PhD is granted. Basically, as I said above you have to demonstrate novel and independent research into a topic and prove to others that you have done this. PhD thesis are usually kept in the university library and are freely available for others to read. Some PhD thesis contain confidential information and therefore are not available (this can happen if the research is done on something patentable, such as a new drug) but thesis are only kept confidential in these instances for a certain period of time (e.g. 5 years).
The strength of the PhD is based on the thesis and the institution from which it was granted - much like how traditional degrees are judged. For example, a degree from Oxford = good. Degrees and PhDs can also be accredited from certain institutions e.g. a Geology degree can be accredited by the Geological Society ... this gives some some degrees more weight against others.
Gillian McKeith studied for her 'PhD' in Natural Health from a controversial unaccredited institution (not a medical school nor is it accredited by the American Naturopathic Medicine Association) in the USA. With somewhat excellent comedy timing it was revealed this week that this institution where McKeith 'studied' has now shut down - see link. Also her thesis is unavailable to read - but this book is supposedly a published version of her PhD. I haven't read it, but from what I have heard it would not be worthy of a PhD from any established UK institution. Ben Goldacre has covered this in much detail... and there we have it - twitter - '#gillianmckeithhasnophd'
Doctor No 3 - the Honorary Dr - this is when an educational institution gives someone they deem as doing a lot of work for a particular field (without studying at the university) an honorary degree/doctorate. These as far as I can see are handed out by universities as they wish and are not really seen as proper qualifications, but they are quite often an ego and publicity boost and people like to be recognised for doing good work. I believe Dr Ben Goldacre is receiving one soon from Loughborough...
SO the answer to my question is, you can trust some Doctors and calling yourself Dr after studying for a PhD is fine (anyone with a PhD definitely deserves recognition for their work, very few get much monetary recognition, so an ego boost is given instead). Misrepresenting your qualification (which is the accusation against McKeith) is not acceptable - although if you do not know how the system works then it is difficult to question what people are telling you. My Grandma does not understand the concept of a PhD - my parents barely understand what the point of it is, but they do know I will be called Dr .. in a few years. If you tell someone you are 'Dr so and so' and proceed to hand out advice about food and health - the majority of people will assume you are a medical doctor - someone like McKeith as a public figure who regularly gives out advice, should make it extremely clear what her qualifications are and what research she has done. A respected doctor of any description would happily do this - people rarely ask about PhD topics - let alone request to read their thesis, normally people would be flattered.