New Bill Would Clarify Who Is a Medical Doctor and Who Isn't

Marcia Frellick

April 24, 2013

Sponsors of a bill recently introduced in the House of Representatives aim to eliminate consumers' confusion over who is considered a medical doctor.

Rep. Larry Bucshon, MD, (R-In.) and Rep. David Scott, (D-Ga.) are cosponsors of the bill, called the "Truth in Healthcare Marketing Act of 2013," (HR 1427), which was introduced on April 9 and referred to the Energy & Commerce committee.

The bill would make it illegal for any healthcare professional to make false or deceptive claims in advertisements and marketing materials regarding their training, degree, license, or clinical expertise. Anyone marketing a health provider's services also must clearly state the license the provider holds.

The bill charges the Federal Trade Commission with identifying specific acts and practices that make deceptive claims and instances when harm or injury resulted from them. Violations would be treated the same as other unfair or deceptive acts under guidelines already established under the Federal Trade Commission Act.

Fully Informed

Matt Sturm, deputy director of government relations for the American Psychiatric Association (APA), told Medscape Medical News in an email that this bill is necessary to make sure health professionals, including physicians, are fully informing consumers of their credentials.

He noted that amid the myriad credentialed providers in mental health services are many who work in collaboration with psychiatrists and other physicians. Credential acronyms may not be readily understood, and providers may add professional association acronyms as well.

"There is clear data that patients are confused about the level of training for health professionals. We simply think proper display of credentials in marketing and advertising, making licensure misrepresentation clearly illegal, and beefing up enforcement makes logical sense. If you were looking for mental health treatment for yourself or a family member, services that are potentially sensitive and need to be carefully managed, wouldn't you like to know a provider's qualifications?" Sturm said.

The APA and the American Medical Association (AMA) are among several major players in organized medicine who support the bill. In an April 17 letter to the bill's sponsors, they and 13 other organizations applauded the measure and wrote, "Patients…are understandably confused by the increasing ambiguity of healthcare provider-related advertisements and marketing. Because of this uncertainty, patient-centered care and decision-making have been compromised."

Confusion is Common

The bill references 2 surveys, completed on behalf of the AMA, that demonstrate patient confusion. Global Strategy Group conducted a telephone survey in August 2008 and Baselice & Associates conducted a telephone survey in November 2010. Both polled 850 adults nationwide and had margins of error of +/-3.4%.

Only 46% of the respondents in 2008 and 51% in 2010 agreed with this statement: "It is easy to identify who is a licensed [medical doctor] and who is not by reading what services they offer, their title and other licensing credentials in advertising or other marketing materials."

Respondents were also asked whether certain professionals listed were medical doctors. The answers showed widespread confusion. Asked whether chiropractors were medical doctors, 38% in the 2008 survey said yes; 53% said no; and 9% were uncertain. Regarding psychologists, 49% said yes; 44% said no; and 8% were uncertain.

In a press release announcing the legislation, Rep. Bucshon said, "It is imperative that healthcare consumers have adequate information, including the education and training level of the healthcare professionals treating them, so that they are able to make wise healthcare choices. Ultimately, this bill will protect patient autonomy and decision-making and improve our healthcare system."

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