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DNP Discussions

Doctor vs. Doctor

Published July 9, 2014 8:36 AM by Julie Schreiner

Dr. Ruth, Dr. Phil, your dentist, your therapist, your veterinarian, your attorney, your pharmacist, your professor, and yes, your nurse practitioner are all potentially doctors of something... but why has the American Medical Association and the American Osteopathic Association stated that only MDs and DOs can identify themselves as doctors without explanation? A multitude of professions exist that call themselves doctors, but due to the already-established "turf war" between physicians and nurse practitioners, NPs are reluctant to be called "doctor" in the clinical arena without an explanation behind the, "Hi, I'm Dr. Schreiner".

I am a Family Nurse Practitioner in primary care and successfully completed my Doctor of Nursing Practice. Prior to my graduation, the office manager of the practice said, "Congratulations, Dr. Schreiner" with my collaborative physician overhearing. In response, he jokingly stated, "Careful how you use that term around here." I smiled in return and stated, "I never claimed myself to be a Doctor of Medicine, but I am a Doctor of Nursing."

This is the battle that NPs with their doctorates face. After extensive hard work on this degree, they are told to be careful on how they use the term "doctor". Why is there such a battle over the term "doctor," specifically in the clinical arena? There is a widely accepted theory that patients might get confused and think the NP is a physician. This theory of confusion has become such an issue by physician counterparts that some states are going so far as to ban nurses as well as other professions with their doctorates from using the term "doctor". But if patients are getting quality care, having ailments addressed, having sicknesses cured, and therefore able to continue their life without restriction, does confusion of your provider's title really matter?

Ultimately, this battle is one that will only get in the way of our patient care. As a DNP I am more qualified to and capable of providing quality care to my patients than I did with my masters. While the focus of my masters degree was on clinical care, pharmacology and patient assessment, my doctorate was one on improving patient care outcomes, assessing the quality of interventions, keeping up to date on improving practice through research evidence, and finally, improving the state of our healthcare system. This education offers not only benefits to our injured health system but also to my small practice setting. It is to this that I speak to when combating why I should be called "doctor". With the toolset provided by my DNP education, I have the potential to save the practice money, improve patient outcomes, and ultimately improve the patient care being provided. By limiting how we come up against physicians in regards to the DNP, and formulating a more educative stance on what the DNP can do for them- our patients and the healthcare system- we have the potential to limit this war on the term. This will allow more of a collaborative union of healthcare professionals with one goal in mind: providing the best care for the people that drove us to go into these professions - our patients. I could not have put it better than an NP who stated, "Collaboration and dialogue will advance the healthcare system of citizens of the US faster than engaging in turf wars and belittling." 1

No, I will never claim myself to be a Doctor of Medicine, but I am proud to be Doctor of Nursing. I will continue to break down the walls of the term "doctor" by educating and collaborating with those around me, including physicians, on why I should be called "Doctor" and how we can work together as "doctors" to improve the care of our patients.  

1 One physician confides, "My primary care doc is a nurse". Mahar M. Posted April 3, 2013.


Keisha - Good work!!! We need people like you to continue this push. The biggest thing is educating others so they understand what exactly a doctor of nursing does!!

Congrats Isabel on your amazing accomplishment! You will be an amazing Dr. of nursing! Continue to push forward and educate your patients on what being a doctor of nursing is. Ultimately if we provide the best care possible the confusion will be calmed by the care.

Thank you all for your comments!

Julie Schreiner, DNP, FNP, RN July 24, 2014 12:17 PM

Isabel-good comment. I graduated with my FNP from SUNY Upstate and I am originally from Syracuse, NY. Go Orange!! Good luck in your studies. my next blog deals with this exact same issue-it is entitled "When the Nurse wants to be called Doctor" my blog takes a different spin and actually discusses what I had to go through in my largely physician centric organization to have permission to call myself Doctor. I use my title in clinical practice and my nurses and MA's, front desk staff reference me as Dr. Cash. I think it is important as NP's with higher education that we stand up to physicians, nurses and other NP's that disagree or bully. I for one am very vocal on behalf of the NP and Nursing so every chance I get I address negative comments aimed at my title. Not because I am into titles, but because I believe in Nursing and I believe in my education and experience. I worked hard and I will be damned if anyone takes away or lessens my hard work because of ego.

Keischa Ca$h, Family Practice - DNP July 18, 2014 11:09 PM

When I was doing my internship, my preceptor introduced herself to a patient as Dr X. She stated she was a nurse practitioner and this was over heard by a physician, who was apalled, and actually made a rude comment. I have a few friends who are veterinarians and get to call themselves doctor and they don't even treat humans.

Mary Pat, FNP July 15, 2014 3:18 AM
Chicago IL

I am working on my DNP and will be "Dr. Nurse" in less than a year if all goes well.  I have heard all too often that I will not be allowed to use "Dr." when I graduate.  Yet, psychologists, dentists, podiatrists, and other providers who do not have doctorates in medicine (M.D.) or doctorates in osteopathy (D.O.) do not have to fight for the right to use a title that they have earned by virtue of education.  I will have earned the DNP and see absolutely nothing wrong with saying, "Hello, I'm Dr. Yonge.  I am not a physician.  I am a nurse practitioner with a doctorate."  Apparently, though, this will still be confusing to patients.  Nobody, however, has told me how.

Isabel Yonge, Internal Medicine/Geriatrics - ANP-BC, Upstate Medical July 14, 2014 4:32 PM
Syracuse NY

K - Thank you for your comment!!! I completely agree with the bullying aspect and unfortunately we see the bullying happening within our own profession as well...between nurses, nurses to NPs, NPs to nurses, etc. Professional bullying among our profession is a huge barrier to the forward movement of our practice. We must continue to build up our professional peers and encourage those to not act out with horizontal bullying but only build the nursing practice with  professional collaborative improvement. Thank you again for your comment!

Julie Schreiner July 10, 2014 2:19 PM

I'm glad you're using your title. Great article. I don't see anyone telling chiropractors, dentists, etc. not to use the title they earned. I'm not sure why NPs feel like it's ok to be bullied.

K July 9, 2014 4:13 PM

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