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Health

Up with nurses! Down with doctorates!

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanOctober 1, 2011 10:48 PM

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In light of growing health care costs and the demographic reality of an aging profession stories like this one in The New York Times are both depressing and hopeful. Calling the Nurse ‘Doctor,’ a Title Physicians Oppose:

But while all physician organizations support the idea of teamwork, not all physicians are willing to surrender the traditional understanding that they should be the ones to lead the team. Their training is so extensive, physicians argue, that they alone should diagnose illnesses.

Nurses respond that they are perfectly capable of recognizing a vast majority of patient problems, and they have the studies to prove it.

The battle over the title “doctor” is in many ways a proxy for this larger struggle. ... Six to eight years of collegiate and graduate education generally earn pharmacists, physical therapists and nurses the right to call themselves “doctors,” compared with nearly twice that many years of training for most physicians. For decades, a bachelor’s degree was all that was required to become a pharmacist. That changed in 2004 when a doctorate replaced the bachelor’s degree as the minimum needed to practice. Physical therapists once needed only bachelor’s degrees, too, but the profession will require doctorates of all students by 2015 — the same year that nursing leaders intend to require doctorates of all those becoming nurse practitioners. ... Nursing is filled with multiple specialties requiring varying levels of education, from a high school equivalency degree for nursing assistants to a master’s degree for nurse practitioners. Those wishing to become nurse anesthetists will soon be required to earn doctorates, but otherwise there are presently no practical or clinical differences between nurses who earn master’s degrees and those who get doctorates.

I applaud the wider distribution of medical services outside of the licensing monopoly of M.D.s. As an empirical matter I think there was a practical reason for the professionalization of medicine in the 20th century and the emergence of degree holding as necessary. To be frank about it for most of human history doctors were frauds or butchers. Modern medicine in the 20th century was a major revolution in that sense (though doctors are only part of it, the rise of an effective pharmaceutical industry is probably just as important if not more so). But the arrow of history does not always move in one direction, and we live in an "information age." Doctors are human, and therefore fallible. They need the aid of both their patients and various other medical professionals to optimize health outcomes. The paternalistic model is just not viable in the long run, especially as the median educational qualifications of their patients keeps rising. But notice that in this case we're seeing greater and greater credentialism in fields which were traditionally perceived to be auxiliary to medical doctors. This is not a good sign. Instead of challenging the unquestioned prominence of medical doctors in domains where nurses are sufficient and more cost effective, the nursing profession is "fighting fire with fire." This is not going to end well. Having to pile on education removes productive years in the work force. This is justifiable when education results in gains in productivity, but just as in education, I suspect that all the extra years for physical therapists and nurses is not doing anything but signalling, and further tightening up labor supply as the number of patients keeps on increasing because of the aging of the population.

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