I have a friend who is a resident who tells me often that I have an 'inferiority complex' when it comes to MD's. As a PhD in medical science, I am often struck by the difference between the disciplines. In my personal life, I've often heard the phrase 'not a real doctor' in relation to my PhD. I've even heard people insinuate that I may have pursued my PhD because I was unable to get into Medical School. Actually, I tell them, PhD's are the original 'doctors' and all MD's were once considered PhD's until it was determined that their knowledge (although considerable) was not equivalent to that awarded by a PhD (the highest degree that a university can grant). Thus the MD was born. And, I'm apt to tell them, I'm much happier working to cure disease than I am treating it.
So, I've done a lot of thought on what I feel the real difference is at a fundamental level. We need MD's as well as we need PhD's. Obviously. I couldn't do an MD's job and and a regular MD certainly couldn't do mine. So, why is the MD's job considered to be so much more important in the grand scheme of things? Why are their salaries so much higher, and their status within the community so revered? Personally, I think it's a form of elitism propagated at the Med School level.
Getting into Medical School is said to be a monumental task. There are very limited spots and sometimes the actual criteria that allows one person in and not another are fuzzy at best. In comparison, you need similar criteria to get into a PhD program, but the spots are not limited and in a lot of cases, they are increasing. Thus, those students who get into med school often feel as if they are somehow more accomplished than any other student in the university. This feeling of being better than everyone else definatly shows in more than a few of the med students I've encountered over the years. Needless to say, I've also met some wonderful, down to earth people who choose to go to Med school, some of them being my closest friends, but they are not the majority in my view.
Thus, although residency programs after med school are limited, by in large very few graduating MDs have to worry about getting a good, well paying job. I've not heard of MDs having to work in limbo waiting to get a position after they finish their residency, they often have choice. In contrast, graduating PhD's have their postdocs which are highly competitive and increasingly getting longer. Not all PhD's will get positions, and many of them simply do not get them, thus after an average of 10 years of education they have to find something else to do. I'm not saying this is right, but what it results in is only the brightest and best, most highly motivated and hardest working of the PhD's getting into faculty positions. I could go on and on about some of the criteria used to determine the best and brightest being skewed, but there are specific criteria and the mediocre researchers are weeded out. When you see an MD, chances are the last time he/she was 'weeded out' was when he/she was applying to med school. You don't have to be a good or even great MD to practice, you only have to have been a great undergraduate student according to criteria set out by med schools. Doing well in exams at the undergraduate level does not mean that you will be a good critical thinker, able to take complex diagnostic indicators to weed out a problem. It doesn't even mean that you will be able to communicate effectively with patients. No doubt the med school experience teaches these skills, but what of those who don't master them? The system is crying out for doctors, and they do not nessecarily get to pick and choose the best.
The system is set up so that MD's are in high demand. Thus, they get high wages, and more respect. Many MD's work for and deserve this respect. However, not all do. Maybe the system needs to change so that there are enough MD's out there such that the best and the brightest get the jobs and the quality of health care increases.
In the meantime, as with anyone, you will get my respect when you earn it, whatever letters follow your name.