When The Nurse Wants To Be Called 'Doctor'
SAUSALITO, CA (ASRN.ORG) -- With pain in her right ear, Sue Cassidy went to a clinic. The doctor, wearing a white lab coat with a stethoscope in one pocket, introduced herself.
“Hi. I’m Dr. Patti McCarver, and I’m your nurse,” she said. And with that, Dr. McCarver stuck a scope in Ms. Cassidy’s ear, noticed a buildup of fluid and prescribed an allergy medicine.
It was something that will become increasingly routine for patients: a someone who is not a physician using the title of doctor.
Dr. McCarver calls herself a doctor because she returned to school to earn a doctorate last year, one of thousands of nurses doing the same recently. Doctorates are popping up all over the health professions, and the result is a quiet battle over not only the title “doctor,” but also the money, power and prestige that often comes with it.
As more nurses, pharmacists and physical therapists claim this honorific, physicians are fighting back. For nurses, getting doctorates can help them land a top administrative job at a hospital, improve their standing at a university and win them more respect from colleagues and patients. But so far, the new degrees have not brought higher fees from insurers for seeing patients or greater authority from states to prescribe medicines.
Nursing leaders say that their push to have more nurses earn doctorates has nothing to do with their fight of several decades in state legislatures to give nurses more autonomy, money and prescriptive power.
But many physicians are suspicious and say that once tens of thousands of nurses have doctorates, they will invariably seek more prescribing authority and more money. Otherwise, they ask, what is the point?
Dr. Roland Goertz, the board chairman of the American Academy of Family Physicians, says that physicians are worried that losing control over “doctor,” a word that has defined their profession for centuries, will be followed by the loss of control over the profession itself. He said that patients could be confused about the roles of various health professionals who all call themselves doctors.
“There is real concern that the use of the word ‘doctor’ will not be clear to patients,” he said.
So physicians and their allies are pushing legislative efforts to restrict who gets to use the title of doctor. A bill proposed in the New York State Senate would bar nurses from advertising themselves as doctors, no matter their degree. A law proposed in Congress would bar people from misrepresenting their education or license to practice. And laws already in effect in Arizona, Delaware and other states forbid nurses, pharmacists and others to use the title “doctor” unless they immediately identify their profession.
The deeper battle is over who gets to treat patients first. Pharmacists, physical therapists and nurses largely play secondary roles to physicians, since patients tend to go to them only after a prescription, a referral or instructions from a physician. By requiring doctorates of new entrants, leaders of the pharmacy and physical therapy professions hope their members will be able to treat patients directly and thereby get a larger share of money spent on patient care.
As demand for health care services has grown, physicians have stopped serving as the sole gatekeepers for their patients’ entry into the system. So physicians must increasingly share their patients — not only with one another but also with other professions. Teamwork is the new mantra of medicine, and nurse practitioners and physician assistants (sometimes known as midlevels or physician extenders) have become increasingly important care providers, particularly in rural areas.
But while all physician organizations support the idea of teamwork, not all physicians are willing to surrender the traditional understanding that they should be the ones to lead the team. Their training is so extensive, physicians argue, that they alone should diagnose illnesses. Nurses respond that they are perfectly capable of recognizing a vast majority of patient problems, and they have the studies to prove it. The battle over the title “doctor” is in many ways a proxy for this larger struggle.
For patients, the struggle has brought an increasing array of professionals trained to deal with their day-to-day health woes, but also at times confusion over who is responsible for their care and what sort of training they have.
Six to eight years of collegiate and graduate education generally earn pharmacists, physical therapists and nurses the right to call themselves “doctors,” compared with nearly twice that many years of training for most physicians. For decades, a bachelor’s degree was all that was required to become a pharmacist. That changed in 2004 when a doctorate replaced the bachelor’s degree as the minimum needed to practice. Physical therapists once needed only bachelor’s degrees, too, but the profession will require doctorates of all students by 2015 — the same year that nursing leaders intend to require doctorates of all those becoming nurse practitioners.
Copyright 2011- American Society of Registered Nurses (ASRN.ORG)-All Rights Reserved
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Liz Di Bernardo