By Shawn Kennedy, AJN editor-in-chief

Last week, we posted here a piece by AJN’s clinical managing editor Karen Roush, decrying the use of the term “physician extender.” It reminded me of a recent article from the New York Times on nurses with doctorates, which reported that if some physicians have their way and their legal strategy succeeds, they will be the only group permitted to use the honorific “doctor.”

Degrees vs. licenses. This borders on the ridiculous, as the title is an academic title that signifies achievement in a field of study; it is not a license. Doctoral degrees are awarded in just about every field of study, from astronomy to zoology. Physicians are awarded a doctor of medicine, dentists are awarded a doctor of dental science, and so it goes. In health care, there are dentists, psychologists, social workers, physical therapists, pharmacists, and yes, nurses too, with doctoral degrees. Nurses have been earning PhDs and EdDs (doctorates in education) and the DNSc (doctorate in nursing science) for years, and now there’s a new nursing doctorate degree—a DNP, doctor of nursing practice—that’s specific to nurses in clinical practice. They are still licensed as nurses, as that’s what they are.

This parochial thinking is held by those physicians (not all, but far too many) who still adhere to the traditional view that they, and they alone, know what’s best for patients and for health care; they’re in favor of teamwork, but only as long as the team recognizes that they are the leaders and decision makers.

Both the media and the health care system bear some responsibility for this. The system itself is physician-centric rather than patient-centric—hospital policies, practitioner admitting privileges, purchasing (especially in the OR), and scheduling have often developed around physician preferences; reimbursements almost always must go through physicians, whether or not they’re actually involved in the delivery of care.

Most media portrayals, both fiction and documentary, focus on physicians as the only important providers in health care, relegating other health professionals to low-level supporting roles (or, as Roush noted,“extensions” of physicians).

And we all play loosely with the term “doctor.” It’s established that not all doctors are physicians, yet we use the terms synonymously. If we are referring to a physician, we need to be specific and not use “doctor.”

There are many health professionals besides physicians who are knowledgeable and skilled practitioners—if allowed to practice to the full capabilities within the scope of their education, expertise, and license, they can provide access and high quality care to the millions of Americans who need it.

Our health care system is far too complex for one group of practitioners to claim ownership of patients, the system, or an academic title. All who complete the arduous path to achieving a doctoral degree deserve the recognition warranted by their achievements—just as doctors of medicine do.

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