Viewpoint: Doctor, physician, provider — who should use which titles?

Increasingly, non-physicians are using the term doctor for those who receive a PhD. All people who earn a PhD deserve the cultural authority to call themselves doctors, but patients deserve to know the distinction, Michael Brant-Zawadzki, MD, a radiologist and senior physician executive at Newport Beach, Calif.-based Hoag, wrote in an op-ed piece on Medpage Today's Kevin MD.

The terms provider or clinician can be widely applied, and most states allow clinicians with a doctorate degree to identify themselves as a doctor as long as they immediately clarify their role and qualifications. Two states — California and Georgia — have banned the use of doctor for practitioners with a doctorate, and two more states — Indiana and Florida — have introduced bills to ban the use of the doctor title for anyone but physicians.

All MDs and DOs are doctors, but not all doctors are physicians.

"Why does it matter?" Dr. Brant-Zawadzki said. "Medicine is a profession, and graduates of medical schools and schools of osteopathy go through a rigorous course of scientific study lasting years, as well as years-long subsequent apprenticeship training (residency) under the supervision of licensed practitioners, typically in university settings. Using interchangeable terms by those not so educated and trained is demeaning to those who are."

But more importantly, it's about the protection of consumers and patients and their understanding of the types of services being provided. 

"Having non-physicians pose as 'doctors' in the health care setting is countertherapeutic, and at worst, could harm patients," he said. "PhDs deserve the cultural authority that title confers in their particular disciplines, academic and others, including doctors of jurisprudence … but the client deserves to know the distinction. The term 'physician' requires no explanation. The term 'doctor,' however, may."

He added, "I would also argue that the proper use of the term 'physician' has a psychological value to the recipient of such services. Faith and trust in those services being at the highest level has a therapeutic value, even if a component is the placebo effect."

However, the term "provider" is "a significant erosion of the cultural authority physicians deserve" and should be stricken from the healthcare lexicon, as it is meaningless, Dr. Brant-Zawadzki said. 

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