From the CEO
It is logical to think that receiving a doctoral degree in psychology would afford an individual the right to be called "Dr." But increasingly, that is not the case, especially in the media. This topic was also debated recently among American Medical Association members. APA has expressed its concerns on both fronts.
Earlier this year, APA wrote twice to Associated Press (AP) editor Darryl Christian, who is responsible for their Stylebook--the standard most U.S. newspapers use for editing. We asked AP to reconsider its policy of reserving the "Dr." honorific for MDs, dentists, doctors of osteopathy and doctors of podiatric medicine. We urged that they apply the same honorific to doctoral-level psychologists to help dispel confusion among the public and for the sake of accuracy. We wrote that "there are many people who describe themselves as psychologists without having a PhD-level degree." And there are other mental health practitioners who are not psychologists at all--social workers and counselors, for example--who are frequently referred to in news accounts as "therapists," just as a PhD-level psychologist might be. We also underscored psychologists' extensive training and education, and noted that psychology practitioners must be licensed by their states.
The AP's response was disheartening: "It comes down to a basic distinction," replied Christian. "Psychologists earn PhDs, and AP style allows the 'Dr.' title only for those with medical degrees. They are identified in our stories as psychologists, so there should be no misunderstanding by the public. I'm afraid the ruling stands."
APA is continuing to press for change on their stance. In addition, psychologists who do media interviews can help by asking the reporter or producer to use "Dr." to identify them. In this way, we can create bottom-up and top-down pressure on AP to change its honorifics style rules.
Meanwhile, our doctoral title came under another threat this year when a group of physicians proposed a resolution to the AMA House of Delegates to restrict the titles of "doctor," "resident" and "residency" in medical settings to apply only to physicians, dentists and podiatrists. In a June 11 letter to AMA, APA strongly urged that the physicians oppose the resolution, stating that it would only "confuse patients, who have used the word 'doctor' to refer to psychologists in medical and mental health settings for decades."
Again, we noted that the use of the term "doctor" recognizes psychologists' extensive education and training as well as their positions in medical settings as supervisors and managers of patient care at the highest levels. We also pointed out that psychologists are routinely referred to as "doctor" in many European and other countries.
In the end, AMA rejected the proposed language on the restricted use of "Dr.," explicitly stating that it recognized that people who receive terminal degrees in their fields of study have the right to be called "doctor." They inserted language that calls for state legislation that would require professionals in clinical settings to identify to patients their qualifications and degrees-and make it a felony for someone to misrepresent themselves as a physician.
We are also addressing this issue through the Coalition for Patients' Rights, a partnership of 35 organizations that represent health-care professions of which APA is a member. Ensuring that psychologists' doctoral-level status is noted in the media and in health-care settings will help health-care consumers make more informed choices concerning mental and behavioral health services. For research psychologists, being recognized as having training at the doctoral level is critical for collaborative and collegial relationships in medical settings.