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The weirdest thing happened to me at work today.  A lovely woman appeared at my door with a name plate.  I figured she was there by mistake.  This had to be mistake.  I had not possessed a job with a name plate in over a decade. I’d only been in this office less than a month and it may be little more than temporary housing for me in the vagabond world of modern medicine.  There was no way this company would have bothered to do this.  But nope – it was no mistake.  The shiny letters of title and name were mine.  And it looked weird to me.  Surreal.  I mean this was truly very strange to me.

Most people in “normal” office jobs would probably think absolutely nothing of this.  You get a job, they give you a name plate and plunk you down in your cubicle or office and that is just usual office protocol.  It gives you a small piece of real estate to do what you have to do.  While you may not own your office equipment, cubicle walls or office door, the space you now have is your space in which to operate.  And that name plate helps assign that space to you.  A place of purpose and task, yes.  But it is your place of purpose and task.  And it helps people find you, and talk to you, and work with you.  It’s not just a name plate, but rather it is a tool of the enterprise.

And so I stood outside my office door in stunned silence, seeing my own name on a name plate for the first time in 16 years.  In fact, I can remember the last time I had a name plate back in 2003.  Our pediatric resident clinic would slide our name plates into the mounts on the patient care rooms we were assigned for the day.  I vividly remember my last time in that clinic and being told I could take my name plates with me.  Sure, they were cheap plastic, but they had served me well for several years in my training.  So, of course the pack rat that I am took them home.  They represented a history for me – a place of purpose and task.  They represented an ownership of what I’d done, and as I moved on, new residents would take over that purpose and task.  Cheap plastic name plates that I took for granted as what I thought would be the first of many.  And I’m pretty certain I simply pitched them out at some point shortly thereafter, thinking a grander-appearing name plate would be somewhere in my hard-earned future.  Oh, you naïve young version of me…

You see, I’ve worn a few different hats with different entities in the ensuing years, but not one department chair, or hospital exec, or clinic director, or executive “this”, or vice-president “that” ever thought to put my name on a wall, or a door, or a cubicle – until today.  And it isn’t even a typical employer who thought I’d be worth the few bucks this thing cost to make, but rather a client who just wants my input and assistance for a while.  A partner of potentially only temporary work and housing placed more value on my name and education – giving me a designated place of purpose and task – than the traditional medical employers for whom I’ve previously served the past 16 years.

Oh sure, once upon a time my name was written on a mail file hung next to the door, but that was pretty much it.  A place for mail.  They clearly think, “Doctor- who works for this cog of the healthcare machine, educating the young and impressionable students and residents, or caring for the sickest of the sick in our hospital environment – we deem your name and title worthy of a piece of paper, sticky noted on a mail file, outside a tiny office you now share with 4 other people.”

And to those who read this and knee-jerk believe this is about ego or pride, I’d say for a few doctors out there, you would be right.  Some docs are definitely hung up on their title and seeing their own name in ads and billboards.  But for me, it isn’t about having my own office, or desk, or wall art or any such whimsical thing. For the vast majority of us, it is about the place of purpose and task.  It isn’t the actual name plate that is the important thing, but what it represents.  Its presence – or absence – conveys a lot about the philosophical and  enterprise-focused value placed on us as physicians.  It is about being involved in the planning of how we take care of the patients for whom we so dearly care, rather than just being expected to blindly do what we are told.

The name plate represents a seat at the bigger table of purpose and task, and being a voice that is not ignored out of habit.  It represents an opportunity for dialogue to contribute ideas and energy born from experience.  And as I’ve seen all too often, doing the right (and sometimes even more cost-effective) thing makes more work for the non-clinical folks in the short-term.  And a lot of leaders just don’t like that.  I get it – we are all stretched thin, but loads are lighter when we lift them together. We need to move past the pervasive and oft-repeated business approach that it is easier to balance budgets through cost-cutting measures of reducing employees, or benefits, or services – rather than digging deep in the weeds with the entire team (not just the managers, but the actual scut level workers who get their latex-gloved hands dirty on a daily basis) to find efficiencies, potentials and plans that cannot remotely be viewed from 50,000 feet.

The name plate is not about me – but more about the value placed on our relationship. And it opens up a simple and seemingly innocent question.  But also one that is intentionally loaded to give us deeper insight into the very essence and culture of the places we live and work.

“Am I worth a name plate to you?”