Three California nurse practitioners with doctorates (DNP) have sued the state over its law that only physicians can call themselves doctors, saying it violates their first amendment right to use the honorific title without fear of regulatory repercussions.
The case highlights ongoing scope-creep battles as the American Medical Association tries to preserve the physician-led team model and nursing organizations and some lawmakers push for greater autonomy for allied professionals.
In the complaint filed in district court last month, plaintiffs Jacqueline Palmer, DNP, Heather Lewis, DNP, and Rodolfo Jaravata-Hanson, DNP, say they fear the state will sanction them. They note that “Doctor Sarah,” another DNP, was fined nearly $20,000 by the state last November for false advertising and fraud after using the moniker in her online advertising and social media accounts.
The fine was part of a settlement that the DNP, Sarah Erny, reached with the state to resolve allegations that she failed to identify her supervising physician and inform the public that she was not a medical doctor.
Under California’s Medical Practice Act, individuals cannot refer to themselves as “doctor, physician, or any other terms or letters indicating or implying that he or she is a physician and surgeon…without having…a certificate as a physician and surgeon.”
Instead, nurse practitioners certified by the California Board of Registered Nursing may use titles like “Certified Nurse Practitioner” and “Advanced Practice Registered Nurse,” corresponding letters such as APRN-CNP, RN, and NP, and phrases like pediatric nurse practitioner to identify specialization.
Individuals who misrepresent themselves are subject to misdemeanor charges and civil penalties.
The nonprofit Pacific Legal Foundation represents the plaintiffs. In court records, its attorneys argue that after “years earning their advanced degrees and qualifications…they should be able to speak truthfully about them in their workplaces, on their business cards, the internet, and social media, so long as they clarify that they are nurse practitioners.”
State lawmakers’ attempts to clarify the roles of physicians and nurse practitioners have seen mixed results. Florida legislators recently passed a bill to prevent advanced practice nurses from using the honorific title, reserving it only for MDs and DOs. Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed it last month.
In May, Georgia lawmakers passed the Health Care Practitioners Truth and Transparency Act. It requires advanced practice nurses and physician assistants with doctoral degrees who refer to themselves as doctors in a clinical setting to state they are not medical doctors or physicians.
Still, some health professionals say that the designation should only be used in academic settings or among peers, and that all doctoral degree holders should ditch the moniker at the bedside to ease patient communications.
Named as defendants in the suit are three state officials: California Attorney General Rob Bonta, state Medical Board President Kristina Lawson, and California Board of Registered Nursing Executive Officer Loretta Melby.
Steph Weber is a Midwest-based freelance journalist specializing in healthcare and law.