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Who Can Call Themselves a "Doctor" in California??

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Who Can Call Themselves a Doctor (in California)?

Right this minute a person can call themselves a doctor in California only if they are a Medical Board of California or Osteopathic Medical Board of California physician.  However a pending California court case may change that.  (Note: Chiropractors can call themselves "Dr." but must put (D.C. or chiropractor at the end of their name, suchas Dr. William Jones, D.C.)

Another related question is whether a Dentist can use the phrase "Dr.".  This is not a finalized issue but the dental board has published examples of names that dentists might theoretically use when registering a fictitious business name.  These include:

The fictitious name may be more than one line, and if so, the lines do not have to be of equal font size. Some examples are:

Greenhaven Dental Care
Dental Office of Dr. John Doe

A-B-C Dental
Practice of Smith Dental Corporation

Camellia Dental Center
Dental Group of John Doe, DDS, Inc.

Howe Avenue Dental Group
Drs. Jones, Smith, and Doe

Meanwhile there is major litigation on the limitation on the use of the term Doctor.

In Jacqueline Palmer et al v. Rob Bonta 5:23-CV-01047 (6/6/2023) Central District of California, three nurse practitioners with Ph.D’s (Doctorate of Nursing) sued to invalidate California Business and Professions Code section 2054. They claimed it infringed on their 1st Amendment rights. B&P section 2054 states that anyone using the terms “doctor”, “physician” or “Dr.” or “M.D.” cannot do so unless they are a currently licensed physician.

The California Medical Association (CMA) and the American Medical Association (AMA) filed a joint amicus curiae brief (See CMA AMA Brief here) arguing that the law in California must prohibit the use of the term “doctor” or the prefix “Dr.” by anyone other than an actual California licensed medical doctor meaning an allopathic or osteopathic physician.

The Pacific Legal Foundation which filed the lawsuit describes (on their website) the issue this way:

California’s restriction of the word “doctor” isn’t a protection against fraud and injury. Instead, the state is appropriating the word “doctor” for certain protected professions: licensed physicians and surgeons. Never mind that neither “Dr.” nor “doctor” appears anywhere on physicians’ or surgeons’ certificates.

The government cannot hijack a commonly used word and reserve it for a narrow range of preferred jobs. Nor can the state police the use of truthful language to limit career opportunities.

Forced either to lie about their qualifications and experience, stay silent, or fight back, Jacqueline, Heather, and Rodolfo are choosing the latter. Represented at no charge by Pacific Legal Foundation, the trio filed a federal lawsuit challenging California’s unjust titling law to restore their right to accurately describe themselves and their credentials and to earn an honest living.

The Amicus brief of the AMA and CMA makes many points including:

Section 2054 is colloquially known as a “truth in advertising” law in
medicine. The problem it is designed to address – confusion when non-physicians
use the term “doctor” or “Dr.” – is not unique to California.

They make the point that:

When encountering the health care system, patients immediately confront an
array of practitioners and acronyms that can cause confusion over the practitioner’s
level of licensing, education, and training. In a review of over 2,000 primary care
providers' biographies, a researcher found 181 unique combinations of alphabetic
acronyms next to the practitioners’ names (e.g., FNP-BC, PA-C).

What about California law?  The Cal. Code Regs. Tit. 22, § 73085 - Physician says:

(a) Physician means a person licensed as a physician and surgeon by the Medical Board of California or by the Osteopathic Medical Board of California.

(b) Attending Physician. Attending physician means the physician responsible for the medical treatment of the patient in the facility.

(c) Advisory Physician. Advisory physician means the physician who assumes responsibility for the medical guidance of the licensed facility.

(d) Psychiatrist. Psychiatrist means a physician who has specialized training and/or experience in psychiatry.

Presently the law is still in effect but the case is not yet decided and it is unclear when the briefings will be completed and a decision issued.  Stay Tuned!

Daniel Horowitz is a medical license and physician defense attorney representing Medical Board or Osteopathic Board licensed medical doctors.