Should nurses be called 'doctor'?

As more health care professionals earn doctoral degrees, physicians are fighting to restrict who gets to use the title

Nurses and other health care professionals with doctoral degrees are lobbying for the title doctor, but critics say it will only confuse patients.
(Image credit: Randy Faris/Corbis)

Who gets to be called "doctor"? That's the central question of a much-talked-about story by Gardiner Harris in Sunday's New York Times, which spotlights a growing debate in the health-care industry. As an increasing number of nurses, physical therapists, pharmacists, and other health-care professionals earn doctoral degrees, says Harris, a "quiet battle" is brewing over "not only the title 'doctor,' but also the money, power, and prestige" that accompany it. Physicians are worried that some nurses and health-care professionals with doctorates aren't being up-front with patients about their backgrounds and the limited authority that should be afforded to them, arguing that use of the title of "doctor" should be restricted. Are they right?

Anyone with a doctoral degree should be able to advertise it: Nurses have the same right to use that title as anyone with a doctoral degree, says Donna Cardillo at Nurse Power. "Physicians do not own that right." A nurse who calls herself a "doctor" after receiving the proper education is not misrepresenting himself or herself in any way, just as is the case for professionals in the myriad of fields that award doctorates. To combat any confusion, many nurses even "deliberately refer to MDs and DOs as physicians rather than doctors."

"Nurses being called 'doctor'"

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But that leads to patient confusion: Physicians are "losing control" over the title of "doctor," American Academy of Family Physicians chairman Dr. Roland Goertz tells The New York Times, and, because of that, patients are becoming confused about the exact roles of the different health professionals "who all call themselves doctors." The legitimacy of that concern is exemplified by a bill proposed by the New York state Senate that would keep nurses from advertising themselves as doctors, regardless of the degree they hold.

"With more doctorates in health care, a fight over a title"

Besides, the doctoral degree movement is out of hand: A push toward more credentials in fields that are "auxiliary to medical doctors" is "not a good sign," says Razib Khan at Discover Magazine. Yes, we should be encouraging physicians to meet higher standards, but, in the domain where their services are required, "nurses are sufficient and more cost effective" as they are — sans doctoral degree. Extra years of education for nurses aren't proven to be productive, and all of those years in the classroom remove them from "productive years in the work force," where they are needed.

"Up with nurses! Down with doctorates!"

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