Who Can Call Themselves 'Doctor'? The Debate Heats Up

Christine Lehmann, MA

May 05, 2021

Physicians and non-physicians clearly differ in whether or not a PhD or EdD should be able to call themselves 'doctor,' a new Medscape poll Who Should Get to Be Called 'Doctor'? shows. The topic has clearly struck a nerve, since a record number of respondents — over 12,000 — voted in the poll.

Most physicians think it's appropriate for people with other doctorate degrees such as a PhD or EdD to call themselves 'doctor,' although slightly more than half said it depends on the context.

The controversy over who gets to be called a doctor was reignited when a Wall Street Journal opinion piece criticized First Lady Jill Biden, EdD, for wanting to be called "Dr Biden." The piece also challenged the idea that having a PhD is worth the honorific of 'doctor.'

Medical ethicist Arthur Caplan, PhD, disagreed with that viewpoint, saying the context matters. For example, he prefers to be called "professor" when he's introduced to the public rather than "doctor" to avoid any confusion about his professional status.

More than 12,000 clinicians including physicians, medical students, nurses, pharmacists, and other healthcare professionals responded to the poll. The non-MD clinicians were the most likely to say it was always appropriate to be called "doctor" while physicians were the least likely.

Context Matters

Large percentages of clinicians — 54% of doctors, 62% of medical students, and 41% of nurses — said that the context matters for being called "doctor.''

"I earned my PhD in 1995 and my MD in 2000. I think it is contextual. In a research or University setting, "Dr." seems appropriate for a PhD. That same person in public should probably not hold themselves out as "Dr." So, maybe MDs and DOs can choose, while others maintain the title in their specific setting." 

Some readers proposed that people with MDs call themselves physicians rather than doctors. Said one: "Anyone with a terminal doctorate degree has the right to use the word doctor.  As a physician when someone asks what I do, I say: 'I am a physician.' Problem solved. There can only be one physician but there are many types of doctors."

Physicians and nurses differed most in their views. Just 24% of physicians said it was always appropriate for people with other doctorate degrees to call themselves doctor whereas about an equal number (22%) thought it was never appropriate.

In contrast, 43% of nurses (including advance practice nurses) said it was always appropriate for people with non-MD doctorates to be called doctor. Only 16% said it's never appropriate. 

This difference may reflect the growing number of nurses with doctorate degrees, either a DNP or PhD, who want to be called doctor in clinical settings.

Age made a difference too. Only 16% of physicians younger than age 45 said it was always appropriate for people with non-MD doctorate degrees to be called doctor compared to 27% of physicians age 45 and up.

Medical students (31%) were also more likely than physicians to say it was always appropriate for non-MD doctorates to use the title "doctor" and 64% said it depends on the context. This was noteworthy because twice as many medical students as physicians (16% v 8%) said they work in academia, research, or military government settings.

Too Many "Doctors" Confuse the Public

Physicians (70%) were also more likely to say it was always or often confusing for the public to hear someone without a medical degree addressed as "doctor." Only 6% of physicians thought it was never or rarely confusing.

Nurses disagreed. Just 45% said that it was always or often confusing while 16% said it was never or rarely confusing.

Medical students were more aligned with physicians on this issue — 60% said it was always or often confusing to the public and just 10% said it was never or rarely confusing.  

One reader commented, "The problem is the confusion the 'doctor' title causes for patients, especially in a hospital setting. Is the 'doctor' a physician, a pharmacist, a psychologist, a nurse, etc., etc.? We need to think not of our own egos but if and how  the confusion about this plethora of titles may be hindering good patient care."

These concerns are not unfounded. The American Medical Association reported in its Truth in Advertising campaign that "patients mistake physicians with nonphysician providers" based on an online survey of 802 adults in 2018. The participants thought these specialists were MDs: dentists (61%), podiatrists (67%), optometrists (47%), psychologists (43%), doctors of nursing (39%), and chiropractors (27%).

The AMA has advocated that states pass the "Health Care Professional Transparency Act," which New Jersey has enacted. The law requires all healthcare professionals dealing with patients to wear a name tag that clearly identifies their licensure. Health care professionals must also display their education, training, and licensure in their office.

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