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When the Nurse Wants to Be Called ‘Doctor’

NASHVILLE — With pain in her right ear, Sue Cassidy went to a clinic. The doctor, wearing a white lab coat with a stethoscope in one pocket, introduced herself.
“Hi. I’m Dr. Patti McCarver, and I’m your nurse,” she said. And with that, Dr. McCarver stuck a scope in Ms. Cassidy’s ear, noticed a buildup of fluid and prescribed an allergy medicine.

It was something that will become increasingly routine for patients: a someone who is not a physician using the title of doctor.

Dr. McCarver calls herself a doctor because she returned to school to earn a doctorate last year, one of thousands of nurses doing the same recently. Doctorates are popping up all over the health professions, and the result is a quiet battle over not only the title “doctor,” but also the money, power and prestige that often comes with it.

As more nurses, pharmacists and physical therapists claim this honorific, physicians are fighting back. For nurses, getting doctorates can help them land a top administrative job at a hospital, improve their standing at a university and win them more respect from colleagues and patients. But so far, the new degrees have not brought higher fees from insurers for seeing patients or greater authority from states to prescribe medicines.

Nursing leaders say that their push to have more nurses earn doctorates has nothing to do with their fight of several decades in state legislatures to give nurses more autonomy, money and prescriptive power.

But many physicians are suspicious and say that once tens of thousands of nurses have doctorates, they will invariably seek more prescribing authority and more money. Otherwise, they ask, what is the point?

Dr. Roland Goertz, the board chairman of the American Academy of Family Physicians, says that physicians are worried that losing control over “doctor,” a word that has defined their profession for centuries, will be followed by the loss of control over the profession itself. He said that patients could be confused about the roles of various health professionals who all call themselves doctors.

“There is real concern that the use of the word ‘doctor’ will not be clear to patients,” he said.

So physicians and their allies are pushing legislative efforts to restrict who gets to use the title of doctor. A bill proposed in the New York State Senate would bar nurses from advertising themselves as doctors, no matter their degree. A law proposed in Congress would bar people from misrepresenting their education or license to practice. And laws already in effect in Arizona, Delaware and other states forbid nurses, pharmacists and others to use the title “doctor” unless they immediately identify their profession.

The deeper battle is over who gets to treat patients first. Pharmacists, physical therapists and nurses largely play secondary roles to physicians, since patients tend to go to them only after a prescription, a referral or instructions from a physician. By requiring doctorates of new entrants, leaders of the pharmacy and physical therapy professions hope their members will be able to treat patients directly and thereby get a larger share of money spent on patient care.

As demand for health care services has grown, physicians have stopped serving as the sole gatekeepers for their patients’ entry into the system. So physicians must increasingly share their patients — not only with one another but also with other professions. Teamwork is the new mantra of medicine, and nurse practitioners and physician assistants (sometimes known as midlevels or physician extenders) have become increasingly important care providers, particularly in rural areas.

But while all physician organizations support the idea of teamwork, not all physicians are willing to surrender the traditional understanding that they should be the ones to lead the team. Their training is so extensive, physicians argue, that they alone should diagnose illnesses. Nurses respond that they are perfectly capable of recognizing a vast majority of patient problems, and they have the studies to prove it. The battle over the title “doctor” is in many ways a proxy for this larger struggle.

For patients, the struggle has brought an increasing array of professionals trained to deal with their day-to-day health woes, but also at times confusion over who is responsible for their care and what sort of training they have.

Six to eight years of collegiate and graduate education generally earn pharmacists, physical therapists and nurses the right to call themselves “doctors,” compared with nearly twice that many years of training for most physicians. For decades, a bachelor’s degree was all that was required to become a pharmacist. That changed in 2004 when a doctorate replaced the bachelor’s degree as the minimum needed to practice. Physical therapists once needed only bachelor’s degrees, too, but the profession will require doctorates of all students by 2015 — the same year that nursing leaders intend to require doctorates of all those becoming nurse practitioners.

Dr. Kathleen Potempa, dean of the University of Michigan School of Nursing and the president of the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, said that the profession’s new doctoral degree, called the doctor of nursing practice, was simply about remaining current. “Knowledge is exploding, and the doctor of nursing practice degree evolved out of a grass-roots recognition that we need to continuously improve our curriculum,” she said.

Last year, 153 nursing schools gave doctor of nursing practice degrees to 7,037 nurses, compared with four schools that gave the degrees to 170 nurses in 2004, when the association of nursing schools voted to embrace the new degree. In 2008, there were 375,794 nurses with master’s degrees and 28,369 with doctorates, according to a recent government survey.

Dr. Potempa said that nurses with master’s degrees were every bit as capable of treating patients as those with doctorates.

Nursing is filled with multiple specialties requiring varying levels of education, from a high school equivalency degree for nursing assistants to a master’s degree for nurse practitioners. Those wishing to become nurse anesthetists will soon be required to earn doctorates, but otherwise there are presently no practical or clinical differences between nurses who earn master’s degrees and those who get doctorates.

Nurse practitioners must generally graduate from college and take an additional 12 to 16 months of classes, which include months of treating patients for both mild and serious illnesses in clinics and hospitals under the watchful eyes of instructors. Those earning doctorates must generally take a further four semesters or 12 to 16 months of additional classes.

While instruction at each school varies, Dr. McCarver took classes in statistics, epidemiology and health care economics to earn her doctor of nursing practice degree. These additional classes, at Vanderbilt University, did not delve into how to treat specific illnesses, but taught Dr. McCarver the scientific and economic underpinnings of the care she was already providing and how they fit into the nation’s health care system. Studies have shown that nurses with master’s level training offer care in many primary care settings that is as good as and sometimes better than care given by physicians, who generally have far more extensive training. And patients often express higher satisfaction with care delivered by nurses, studies show. Physicians say they are better at recognizing rare problems, something studies have trouble measuring.

The benefits to patients of nurses receiving doctorates is unclear, since there is no evidence that nurses with doctoral degrees provide better care than those with master’s degrees do.

Given the proven effectiveness of nurses with master’s degrees, even some nursing leaders have asked why nurses should be required to get doctorates.

“If it ain’t broke, why fix it?” asked Dr. Afaf I. Meleis, dean of the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing.

Some health care economists say the push for clinical doctorates across health professions could be misguided. They argue that anything requiring students to spend more time and money getting trained will invariably result in longer waits and increased costs for patients, because fewer students will meet the increased requirements and those who do will eventually demand higher compensation.

“Everyone’s talking about improving patients’ access to care, bending the cost curve and creating team-based care,” said Erin Fraher, an assistant professor of surgery and family medicine at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine. “Where’s the evidence that moving to doctorates in pharmacy, physical therapy and nursing achieves any of these?”

Depending on their area of specialty, nurse practitioners earn a median salary of $86,000 to $90,000 annually, according to the Medical Group Management Association — a bit less than half of what primary care physicians earn. Nurses with doctorates generally earn the same salaries as those with master’s degrees since insurers pay the same rates to both. Physician groups fear that the real reason behind the creation of the doctor of nursing practice degree is to persuade more state legislatures to grant nurses the right to treat patients without supervision from doctors.

Twenty-three states allow nurses to practice without a physician’s supervision or collaboration, and most are in the mountain West and northern New England, areas that have trouble attracting enough physicians. Nursing groups have lobbied for years to increase that number. “This degree is just another step toward independent practice,” said Louis J. Goodman, chief executive of the Texas Medical Association.

Not true, Dr. Potempa said — the new degree simply ensures that nurses stay competent. “It’s not like a group of us woke up one day to create a degree as a way to compete with another profession,” she said. “Nurses are very proud of the fact that they’re nurses, and if nurses had wanted to be doctors, they would have gone to medical school.”


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