Nurse practitioners sue California over restricted use of 'doctor'

Three nurse practitioners are suing the state of California for its restrictions over the use of "doctor," asking the court to prevent enforcement of the law, The Washington Post reported July 18.

Under California law, only physicians and surgeons can use the word "doctor" or the prefix "Dr." In November, Sarah Erny, a nurse practitioner with a doctorate, was found violating the law by allegedly describing herself as a doctor on professional websites and social media. She was fined $20,000 by the state and another $2,500 by the state medical association.

In June, three nurse practitioners with doctorates of nursing sued the California attorney general, leaders of the medical board of California and leaders of the state board of registered nurses, arguing they have a right to call themselves doctors. 

"It's not an ego trip; it's not a power trip. It's just validation that I worked hard to get where I am today," Jacqueline Palmer, DNP, RN, one of the nurse practitioners in the lawsuit, told the Post. "The word 'doctor' doesn't belong to physicians. We need to educate everybody. … Patients are very intelligent. They can understand the difference."

Several states regulate the use of the doctor title, but California's laws are the strictest in the country, Donna Matias, the attorney representing the nurse practitioners, told the Post. The law prohibits any person from using "doctor" in signs or advertisements without having a valid certificate as a physician or surgeon.

"If you read the law literally, it appears to prohibit even PhDs and university professors from using the title," Ms. Matias said, adding that the crackdown on Ms. Erny set a chilling precedent.

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