The ongoing debate between physicians and nurses over who can use the “doctor/ Dr.” title continues to draw attention in the healthcare arena. Recent advocacy efforts have renewed the discussion, with nurses holding Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degrees seeking legal action to challenge state laws restricting their use of the title.
The American Medical Association (AMA) and the American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP) disagree on the matter. Both groups aim to prevent deception and provide clarity to patients, but they differ on whether nurses with doctoral degrees should be allowed to use the “Dr.” title.
The disagreement appears to be based on semantics, as anyone holding a doctoral degree, whether it’s an MD, PharmD, DC, DNP, or any other, can rightfully be called a doctor, but state laws on healthcare professional titles create inconsistencies and suggest deeper issues of equity.
California and Iowa, for instance, have different rules for using the “Dr.” title. California limits the title to licensed physicians, whereas Iowa extends it to other licensed healthcare professionals, including dentists, chiropractors, and therapists. These variations in state laws indicate that the argument may extend beyond semantics.
The discrepancy in training hours between physicians and nurses raises legitimate concerns too. Family practice doctors undergo significantly more training than nurse practitioners, spanning around 15,000 to 20,000 more hours. The timeline for physician training, including medical school, residency, and potential fellowship, can take up to 7 years, whereas nurses can earn a DNP in fewer years.
Patients may encounter both physicians and nurse practitioners during their healthcare visits, leading to potential confusion about the qualifications of DNPs. According to the AMA’s 2020 “Truth in Advertising” campaign results, around 50% of respondents were uncertain about whether DNPs were physicians.
Arriving at a resolution for this debate requires evidence-based data, which are currently limited. The AMA’s campaign results could serve as a starting point. The AMA’s campaign and potential future partnership between the AMA and AANP may help patients understand interpretations of the “Dr.” title. Without patient feedback, the debate may live on for years to come.