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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?

Wednesday October 2, 2013
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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 Cardillo, RN, MA, well-known career guru, is Nurse.com’s “Dear Donna” and author of “Your First Year as a Nurse: Making the Transition from Total Novice to Successful Professional” and “The ULTIMATE Career Guide for Nurses: Practical Advice for Thriving at Every Stage of Your Career.” Information about the books is available at www.Nurse.com/CE/7010 and www.Nurse.com/CE/7250, respectively. To ask Donna your question, go to www.Nurse.com/Asktheexperts/Deardonna. Find a “Dear Donna” seminar near you: Call 800-866-0919 or visit http://www. Nurse.com/Events.