When a professor with a PhD in mathematics refers to himself as a “Doctor,” we might have various reactions, from impressed to annoyed, but we are unlikely to be confused. Someone who seeks medical advice from such a “doctor” has only themself to blame. Within the medical field, however, who gets to lay claim to the title “Doctor” has more serious implications, and the advent of the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree is bringing the issue to the forefront.
Whatever our feelings about the practice, professionals who have achieved very high levels of education earn the right to be referred to as “Doctor.” This usually applies to a Doctorate or to the terminal degree in a field of study. Based on this custom, it would appear appropriate for nurses achieving the Doctor of Nursing Practice to refer to themselves as “Doctor.” The common understanding among patients, however, is that their “doctor” has completed medical school and the associated residency and other training necessary to achieve that position. Against that backdrop, referring to DNPs as “Doctors” could cause significant confusion.
Some urge nurses of any degree to avoid referring to themselves as “doctors” to avoid confusion among patients, though this group likely includes many doctors concerned about protecting their status. Others rightly acknowledge the increasing role that highly trained nurses play in patient care. Different states are taking different approaches to this issue, as shown in this table (though please note that it is unclear whether that information is being updated regularly). In 2011, the New York Times wrote an interesting article on the subject, which weighs the issue from several perspectives.
There is no clear answer to this question at the moment, and it will like be quite a while before we settle into new conventions. In any case, current and prospective DNPs should be aware of the issue, and should verify the requirements in their home state.