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Can a nurse who earned a PhD use the title doctor as long as they make it clear to patients that they are their nurse?

Question:

Dear Donna,

I have worked at my current facility (a Magnet hospital) for 20 years. I obtained my PhD about seven years ago, and I was the first “staff RN” at my facility to have done so. My peers and colleagues were as proud of this as I am, and they began addressing me as Doctor Smith. I have always been quite clear to my patients that “I am Doctor Smith and I will be your nurse today.” Recently, however, my manager expressed concern at me using the title doctor, which she felt should be reserved only
for physicians.

I expressed recognition of her concern and reiterated how I take great care to explain my title and role and leave it up to the other party whether to address me as doctor or by my first name. I also shared a position statement from my professional organization encouraging the use of the term doctor for nurses who have this educational degree.

I was called into the office recently and given a formal verbal disciplinary action for “continuing to pretend to be a physician.” I was told the physicians were upset, but I’ve inquired about this and can find no physician who says any member of the staff as having an issue with my title. Several staff physicians continue to address me as such with our patients.

My intention in using the title is to inform our patients that they are being cared for by the best staff. It may be that the management team feels threatened. I have grieved this disciplinary action to the union. Do you have any thoughts on this term of address?

Doctor Nurse

Dear Donna replies:

Dear Doctor Nurse,

The title doctor is earned and granted to anyone with a doctoral degree be they a nurse, pharmacist, psychologist, administrator or educator. It is not now, and never has been, the exclusive entitlement of the physician. And since more nurses and other healthcare professionals are getting doctoral degrees these days, it will be more common.

Even if any physician did take issue with it (and some have), it wouldn’t change your right to use that title with a proper introduction as you describe. And since there are many sources of ongoing confusion in a healthcare setting anyway (many people assume all women in healthcare are nurses and that all men are physicians) clearly displayed and easy to read name badges and a proper introduction, such as the one you describe, are important.

Since Magnet facilities in particular typically promote the higher education status of their nursing staff, one would think they would be happy to showcase this.

Grieving the disciplinary action sounds like the right thing to do in this case.

Best wishes,

Donna

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By | 2018-08-28T15:51:30-04:00 October 2nd, 2013|Categories: Blogs, Nursing careers and jobs|26 Comments

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  1. Avatar
    Bob December 23, 2016 at 12:24 am - Reply

    Probably well out of date now but it should be noted that physicians using the title Doctor are in fact using the title in an HONORARY capacity. The difference between a medical doctor and a PhD is this – A medical doctor applies EXISTING knowledge while a PhD creates NEW knowledge.

    • Avatar
      John June 9, 2017 at 12:08 am - Reply

      That is not true Bob. A Physician earns the formal title of either Medical Doctor (MD) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO). True, they do not earn a Doctorate of Philosophy (though some do when they earn the MD/PhD double degree), but that does preclude the fact that they are doctors in the formal sense. The same can be said for the Nurse who earns a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree. The DNP degree does not include a dissertation and successful defense, but a graduate of a Doctor of Nursing Practice is a doctor all the same. The fact that a medical doctor (or DNP) apply existing knowledge and don’t create new knowledge doesn’t mean they are not doctors.

  2. Avatar
    Misty C August 29, 2017 at 8:48 pm - Reply

    I think it is frankly just being pompous to introduce yourself as Dr in a medical setting. Let’s get serious for minute, they hand out honorary doctorates like candy now to any celebrity willing to give a speech at a commencement ceremony but I can tell I would never refer to them as Dr. They also have doctorate degrees in absolutely asinine fields of study. I won’t be calling a painter, illustrator or any liberal arts major Dr just because they completed some extra courseload. Taking pride in your accomplishment and having egotistical vanity about it are 2 different things. If you actually feel the need to introduce yourself as Dr to everyone you meet, you should look within yourself and ask why you need that boost, is for your self esteem? Why not give your IQ as well then, because it’s just as pretentious.

    • Avatar
      George Dulos September 18, 2017 at 9:02 pm - Reply

      Physicians have already a distinct title. Not to mention it is the correct one. Doctors are the ones only who hold doctorates.

      We should call People educated in medicine Physicians and not Doctors.

    • Avatar
      Will August 5, 2018 at 4:31 am - Reply

      This coming from someone who herself is most likely pretentious. Sound like a disgruntled nursing student who didn’t make it or even tried for med school. Either way, all you said was negative useless things. Personal too.

  3. Avatar
    Indy D October 13, 2017 at 4:03 pm - Reply

    Don’t discredit anyone’s hard work. If you go beyond a master’s degree to earn a Ph.D., I feel that that is worth some respect. A Ph.D is a doctorate’s and they deserve the title. Nurses do more of the work, these days, than physicians and everyone in a hospital deserves the same respect because everyone is there ultimately for the same purpose. Research the curriculum for nurses and MDs/DOs and you will see how many things overlap. A nurse with a DNP damn well earned his/her right to have the title. But do not get me wrong, a celebrity earning a doctorates or some other major that does not require the vigorous and intense journey of those affiliated with the medical/health professions probably would not be getting called “doctor” by me either lol I guess it is all about how you feel and think.

  4. Avatar
    A.Weissburg December 17, 2017 at 7:49 pm - Reply

    If a nurse, or anyone else, with any sort of doctorate degree, other than MD, tried to pass themselves off as a physician, I would consult an attorney immediately.

    • Avatar
      Johnathan August 25, 2018 at 6:49 am - Reply

      Did you even bother to read her statement? “Hello I’m Doctor _____, your nurse.” Did you hear her call herself a physician in any context above? A doctor is someone who holds a doctorate, a physician is someone who holds a MD or DO degree. By all means contact your attorney immediately so he can charge you to read the definition from a dictionary.

  5. Avatar
    J December 21, 2017 at 4:18 am - Reply

    Then why do individuals who have PhDs in philosophy, biology, and other subjects allowed to be referred to as doctors despite the MD degree? Where are the attorneys to correct this?!

  6. Avatar
    Lynn M December 25, 2017 at 9:05 am - Reply

    I think the people upset here are actually doctors that are threatened by other clinicians I.e., nurses, nurse practitioners who actually do the work and educate theirselves. We have just as much right to be called a doctor as you. A physicians using the title Doctor is in fact using the title in an HONORARY capacity. The name doctor is for Anyone who obtains the degree. So please get off your high horse power tripping asses. I’m so sick of MDs and DOs thinking their the be all end all when we….yes, we nurses actually do your work and take care of the patients. Anyone can write a order. You have to learn to do it and follow it through and educate your patients. If I get my doctorate degree I will be calling myself Doctor xxxxx with great pride.

  7. Avatar
    Jason December 26, 2017 at 7:33 am - Reply

    I am a certified family nurse practitioner and am currently working on my DNP. I Always introduce myself as Jason the nurse practitioner caring for you today. If anyone who obtains a doctorate, regardless of field of study, has the right to be referred to as doctor. Receiving a terminal degree shows you have completed the highest level of education for your field of study. As long as it is made clear what your position is, nurse, pharmacist, physical therapist, to name a few, you are not pretending to be a physician. If you look at other medical professionals you will see the term doctor used. Doctor of Veterinary Medicine(DVM), Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS), Doctor of Chiropractor (DC) Doctor of Podiatry Medicine (DPM).

  8. Avatar
    John Appleseed December 29, 2017 at 3:15 am - Reply

    Dear Lynn M, I do appreciate your response and give you applause for completing nursing school and following physicians orders and taking care of your patients. However, I would like to clarify a few points that you fail to understand. Number one, not anyone can write orders. Physicians complete four years of medical school which include two years of purely clinical rotations which are soon followed b 3-5 year residency depending on their chosen specialty. I don’t think that you fully grasp the amount of thought and education that goes in to writing medication orders. Not only do physicians have to know the specific mechanism of action of each medication written but they also have to predict the positive and adverse ways this will react with their patient in both the short in the long term. Physicians have very in depth training into pathophysiology and disease processes that nursing school just does not teach, which is at no fault to nursing because it just isn’t their job to know these details to perform their job effectively. To state that you “actually did the work to educate yourself” is a slap in the face to all of the physicians that actually did go to medical school and have earned the right to be called a physician or doctor. Also the fact that you say you are the one who actually takes care of a patient is deeply hurtful to physicians and you should be ashamed of your comment. Nurses help physicians a great deal and vice versa and both do their best to adequately care for patients in the way that their education provides. Do you think that those who went to medical school “didn’t do the work to educate themselves”? In fact, I see it quite the opposite way and I feel a large sense of regret for your profession that you view this in your narrow minded way. Secondly, the doctorate that Nurse Practitioners do obtain is mostly online with a huge lack of clinical exposure, and for the most part has nothing to do with your success as a clinical provider. If you wanted to be called a doctor and earn the respect that physicians have worked years for, you should have thought twice and gone to medical school instead. If you ever do finish DNP school, I want you to think twice about holding your head high with pride when calling yourself doctor and understand how fraudulent that statement is and how patients can be drastically mislead.

    • Avatar
      Mike Hunt January 3, 2018 at 10:58 am - Reply

      Mr. Appleseed,

      Not once did anyone say the words “Doctor” and “Physician” are interchangeable. Nor did anyone say they’re one in the same. All you did was prove to the world the arrogance and closed minded nature of society. In regards to your statement about how much time it takes a Physician to understand the basic concepts of prescriptions is quite sad. I guess all that training and 3-5 years of residency didn’t teach Physicians to catch their own medication error? Hey, I guess the security blanket of knowing when you screw up you can blame everybody but yourself and your “Physician” degree is always nice. When you’re ready to get off of your high horse, you’re welcomed in the regular world.

    • Avatar
      Will Pointer August 6, 2018 at 12:55 am - Reply

      You only posted in here to reply to that woman with cynicism and all you have accomplished is letting people see just how ignorant you are. Congrats on being that guy.

  9. Avatar
    JD, PhD January 10, 2018 at 6:06 am - Reply

    Interesting discussion. Healers borrowed the title “doctor” from professors (PhDs) as an attempt to increase respect for the medical profession (as noted above, the word “doctor” is derived from “teacher”). (History tells us that the true “actual doctor” is really a professor.) Given that, it’s ironic that when others (e.g., nurses, pharmacists) seek the same respect, physicians are upset. Interesting observations: 1) In parts of the UK, the term “doctor” is so overused, the top physicians (surgeons) prefer to be called “mister,” and some states have laws that restrict the use of the term “doctor” to specific healers; in those states, it’s considered a violation of attorneys’ ethic codes for an attorney (a Juris Doctor) to refer to him/herself as a “doctor.”

    • Avatar
      RP March 29, 2018 at 11:00 am - Reply

      Sorry but that’s wrong. Surgeons are not the top Doctors firstly, they are on par with other consultant Doctors in the UK. They refer to themselves as Mr as it’s an old tradition dating back to when surgeons used to be barbers.

      Secondly, in a clinical setting, having someone introduce themselves as Doctor and a Nurse is wholly confusing for the patient. Most patients who come in to hospital are stressed, confused and frightened and adding more confusion to that doesn’t help them and they are confused by who they need to ask for help or advice when they can’t tell the difference between who’s a Doctor and who’s a nurse. The reason I believe the management are doing this is for the patient’s own safety, not for clinician’s arrogance. It’s to help set clear boundaries. It’s fine to call someone a Doctor in a chemistry department at a university because in that setting it’s much more clear that they have a PhD rather than an MD or MBBS. But in a hospital setting with patients it just adds to the confusion having a nurse refer to themselves as Doctor to a patient when there’s a high patient turnover with little time to get used to it. However I do believe that other staff who are aware of the situation and know the person in question for a longer period of time than a typical patient does should refer to them as Doctor nurse.

  10. Avatar
    WB (M.D. for those who care) May 8, 2018 at 12:31 am - Reply

    As a provider who is proud of the accomplishments of medical school, residency, fellowship and becoming a practicing attending, the patient does not care how much schooling that has occurred when they are acutely ill. Outside of the etymology of the word “doctor”, the layperson understands a “Doctor” as one who has prescribing abilities and one who can render medical decision-making. Patients already become confused with what medications they take – the last thing a patient needs is confusion regarding the role of each member of their healthcare team. If someone wants to say they’re a Doctor – PhD, DNP, etc – it should not be used in the setting of patient care. Patients have a hard enough time knowing that Lisinopril and Lipitor treat different diseases – they shouldn’t have to try to figure out who is prescribing which medication as well.

  11. Avatar
    CC (PhD) May 25, 2018 at 5:15 pm - Reply

    This is indeed an interesting debate. I would agree with earlier statements of simply doing away with the title in such a setting and simply using nurse, physician, etc., with patients, or simply first names. If your name tag and ID badge state title, full name, and job status, then you’ve got all corners covered. If a patient asks who you are (beyond first introductions), you explain. Though I appreciate patients can be confused and scared in some instances, the person attending them should interact with the person accordingly so to create ease and comfort. People seeking medical care will be from a variety of backgrounds and educational levels, many will perfectly understand who is who on first introductions. Back to the original situation, I’m sorry, Doctor Nurse, that some people have clearly taken personal offense to this within the close working environment. It’s a bit silly in the grand scheme of things.

  12. Avatar
    R.H. June 8, 2018 at 11:32 pm - Reply

    I am sorry you have been met with such animosity. You have worked hard for that title and should be able to use it. I understand the concerns, I do, but I have respect for the hard work you have gone through and feel you deserve to be treated with respect and have earned the right to be referred to as doctor.

  13. Avatar
    Jill July 7, 2018 at 4:35 am - Reply

    Medical doctors are physicians. That helps me clarify the debate.
    I’ve done the DNP and DNPs are being produced like crazy. What does that say? Yes the DNP courses were hard (not clinical) and I enjoyed them a lot- tough. But NOTHING like the PhD program I’m in. No comparison at all. That’s why there are so few PhDs too- it’s so hard and long that a school can pump out 50 DNPs to literally 3 nurse PhDs. What’s wrong with this picture?
    A 25 page capstone versus a 100+ page dissertation? I wonder what this will do to nursing if so many students graduate with DNPs ((with varying credit levels). I did the PhD for research and teaching yet my nursing peers who are DNPs will be able to have same academic roles and tenures as me? Apologize in advance but I’m all for advanced degrees but I’m angry and worried- and not just on a personal level. I’m working my rear off so I can actually do research too.

    • Avatar
      Natasha August 23, 2018 at 2:58 pm - Reply

      Dear Sad Jill,

      I’m sorry that you are ignorant (definition: do not know) to the RIGOR of the DNP programs. Yes PhD and DNP differs depending on your interest. PhD – research/ New knowledge DNP- Quality improvement/ existing knowledge. One is more clinical based the other is research base. To downgrade and down play the DNP degree shows your arrogance and ignorance. It’s been 4 years now I have worked on my DNP and it has been the most difficult thing outside of being a mother. and FYI we defend our projects we have to go through IRB we have to collect data and my dissertation manuscript is 175 pages long! The point is you are no better than anyone else who have obtained their terminal degree. Learn to respect others, it will get you much further than that PhD you are working on ?.

  14. Avatar
    Jake August 9, 2018 at 12:39 am - Reply

    I’m sorry John Appleseed what’s your title? If it’s a doctor, I hope I’m never a patient of yours. The overall picture here is that people who seek medical care want a kind, compassionate and intelligent person taking care of their health. I can assure you most patients do not care about titles these days as there are so many. People want a provider who will listen to them fully not an ass who steps over everyone and doesn’t give a shit. There are MANY nurses, assistants, techs etc who know MORE than doctors. Period. Plus, Google is becoming one of the top doctors.

  15. Avatar
    Jerry PhD August 12, 2018 at 1:18 pm - Reply

    I am a respiratory therapist with a PhD. I am MORE of a DOCTOR than a physician. Physicians hold an honorary title of doctor. If you have written a dissertation and defended it, then you are a doctor. I also do not see a DNP as a doctor, with a capstone 30 page thesis. I wrote 30 page theses for my MPH, MSHA, and MEd. A capstone is for a masters, not a doctorate. The only way the DNP was approved academically is because of the power of the ANA and influence on state educational boards.

    Physician arrogance is laughable. It is the PhDs that develop new knowledge, physicians simply apply it with directions obtained from the PhDs. The medications you write orders for were developed by PhDs. Many of the devices physicians use in their practices where researched and developed by PhDs. And…many of the professors in the medical schools that physicians learn from are PhDs. Medical students call the professors in medical school…doctor! A PhD in any medical specialty will eat a physician alive in theory, research, and application.

  16. Avatar
    Sydney August 28, 2018 at 5:24 pm - Reply

    Are you guys serious???? I’m just me…the patient! I feel I need to speak for the rest of us after reading this crap. What the hell is wrong with you high horse people??

    C’mon..Just another example of division even in the medical field, unfreaking believable and every one of you complaining and moaning about your “Title” needs a grip on reality. You need look inside yourself to find something way more than your macho sense of domination. Is it all about the money and power giving you that high horse because you lack in every other way? Yes you earned it but guess what, Dr.s from a patient point of view don’t give two iotas about your “Title”. They want to “Connect” with you and nothing works faster than putting a patient at ease than introducing ones self as “”Hi, I’m Dr. Jones but please call me Ken”. Over my lifetime I’ve met many Dr.s and can assure you the ones that introduce themselves with a title, they have not much more than that to offer but the ones that also offer their name, they have patients that become friends and most lifetime patients. If you are a doctor who doesn’t care about having friends, we the patient already know upon your introduction that we are beaneth you and your 5 min. bedside manner diagnosis. You might want to take notes from your colleagues that think nothing of their title! Get over it!!!

  17. Avatar
    Edward Phillips March 16, 2019 at 5:12 am - Reply

    Do you want an electrician with 2 years of a 5 year apprenticeship working on your home. One mistake can cause a fire and kill all the members in your home. That’s why I want an MD instead of a junior Doctor.

  18. Avatar
    Cait November 9, 2019 at 5:24 pm - Reply

    Sydney-you’re absolutely right. Ultimately patients want to be treated as people first and foremostly and the likelihood is they will remember a first name and how they have been treated, than the pedantic pettiness of a title.

    That said, if you as a practitioner have studied within your area of expertise and have gained the knowledge needed and the qualifications which lead to certification, if you have the practical, clinical experience and understanding that accompany it, and, as well as the drive to act within your specialist subject as passionate, competent, compassionate and patient people, then you have earned the right to respect from your peers, your patients and clients and from the world alike. You have earned the right to use the title awarded, within that subject and under that certified qualification. It is the choice you have earned to use that title or not, and ultimately matters not what others think about your choice in the matter.

    There is, as some have been pointing out, a lot of arrogance surrounding this subject’s discussion and within the world of medicine and healing and within the behaviours of its practitioners. As someone who can personally speak from experience working In this amazing field of Medicine, I can tell you that Nursing staff are among the most under appreciated and undermined professionals who are perhaps yet the most professional. Regardless of their poor treatment by colleagues, they still behave in a manner that should perhaps be an example to all. I hold the value of Nurses incredibly highly and Doctors cannot do our jobs without them. They are utterly invaluable-and given their level of skill needed within their role, we are lucky to have them. Whilst Doctors of all types can study for many years, we certainly are not the ONLY ones who have worked our backsides off to gain the level of experience and expertise that we have. If you’ve earned your right to a title then I think it’s your right to use it if you choose and that if you choose in favour of using it then you shouldn’t be made to feel like you’re a fraud.m and it’s most definitely something to which you can feel proud.

    I do see the points of view from many of you, and understand where those frustrated answers may have come from, and do share In Some instances perhaps similar frustrations; especially at titles being awarded to celebrities for fees(albeit honorary titles) but I think it comes down to the way in which those titles-all titles really-are used and applied and in what setting.

    Always seek reputable Medical advice-from a proven reputable Medical setting, and ensure those clinicians are fully qualified persons. If in doubt then find them out. (You can find most-not all- but most-clinical practitioners from nurses to doctors to surgeons and others on specialist registers, designed for the sole purpose of being transparent and showing everything from their personal stats, to the place of their qualification, studies and the years they qualified to any reprimands and law suits against them is r their place of employment, etc. These informations are public and free of charge.)

    I wish that people concentrated more on what mattered rather than what just doesn’t, especially given that Doctors -in general- already have such an arrogant and often belittling attitude toward colleagues-and nearly always over this very subject. That an given that the Medical profession already had a negative view from those it is meant to be providing a service to helping-(patients) as it is seen as little more these days than a money making scheming organization and it’s employers (clinicians, doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals) are seen as benefiting from that very idea, rather than being seen to be providing people with a safe, caring, nurturing, compassionate and genuine environment of healing where we “first do no harm” and take the Hippocratic Oath as seriously as it was designed to be taken.

    Do no harm should also mean to your peers, fellow colleagues, regardless to their level of ability, skill level or title, as in treating people with a little respect and decency.

    I’d like to wish anyone thinking of advancing their careers-regardless of their field in Healthcare, and regardless as to whether that involves a title at its end or not, the very best of luck.

    Be proud of yourselves and please never forget why you came into this professions-always remember your patients are people, and that you are just one small cog in the well oiled machine that is Medicine, and are part of an incredible, awesome and amazing TEAM.

    I’ve been a surgeon for the last 14 years, and have been referred to as everything from “Doc” to “Dr” to “Doctor” to “Physician” to “Ms” to “Ms-MD” to “MediCait” but I have ALWAYS maintained and insisted on the important part of my name, which is simply

    Cait.

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