Is It Illegal to Use the 'Doctor' Title?
Q: I hear there are states where using the title “doctor” is illegal if you are not an MD. Which states are these, and how would a DNP graduate introduce him- or herself to patients in those states?
A: To begin, I hope that all of us who have earned our doctorate degrees, be it the PhD, DNSc or DNP, step back to realize that any efforts to expand a body of knowledge unique to a professional discipline should be applauded rather than criticized. I feel fortunate that, in my personal experience, I have received only positive feedback from the physicians I practice with. They have been inquisitive and positive in giving their feedback as I moved through my capstone project and began to address the clinical problems I identify from a new perspective. As with most of the barriers I have read about in terms of nurse practitioner scope of practice, this comes down to a lack of knowledge regarding the content of our educational programs, clinical learning requirements for practice, and the certification process. And equally unfortunate is the fact that, unless our colleagues in other health professions take the time to listen, they will not learn that the DNP is not an effort to further move toward the medical model, but to empower nurse practitioners by educating them on how to engage in evidence-based practice.
There are negative commentaries and (in my opinion) unfounded accusations that DNPs attempt to misrepresent themselves as medical doctors. The AMA, as represented by the Scope of Practice Partnership (SOPP) continues to methodically challenge the scope of practice of advanced practice nurses (among other groups) from state to state. Among the charges of the SOPP is an effort to prohibit the use of the title “doctor” by DNPs in the clinical setting. This was temporarily successful in the state of Illinois some years ago, but was corrected through revisions in that state’s Nurse Practice Act. The bottom line is this ... no one can prevent an individual who has earned an academic title, doctor or otherwise, if that person has earned and been awarded the degree.
Would it be completely unethical and inappropriate for a DNP to represent themselves as a medical doctor? Absolutely! Our patients may become easily confused by the title of Doctor of Nursing Practice. It is hard enough for many of them to decipher who is a nursing assistant versus who is a registered nurse, and who is a dietician or physical therapist. The healthcare environment is a sea of scrubs, and the patient is often perplexed about who is actually responsible for their care. I often correct my patients several times when they refer to me as “doctor,” simply because I want to be clear with them that I am not a medical doctor. I always introduce myself with, “I'm Meg Carman, I am a nurse practitioner here,” and explain what my role is. Likewise, most of my ED physician colleagues enter the room giving their first name, followed by, “I’m one of the emergency physicians here.” It is important to help our patients understand who is providing their care. At the same time, the DNP should always be proud of the hard work it took to accomplish this goal. No one has a right, and no law exists, to take that away. We need to work as a group to assure that such an injustice is not allowed to happen.
Editor's note: Here at the DNP Answers blog we take your questions about the DNP and answer them as best we can. This question is answered by blogger Meg Carman, DNP, ACNP-BC, CEN, who serves on faculty in the ABSN program at the Duke University School of Nursing in Durham, N.C. She also practices with Wake Emergency Physicians in Raleigh. Comment below to discuss this topic, or send new questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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