Make professional credentials unmistakable for patients

Proposed legislation lets patients be sure of credentials of health professionals who treat them -- a necessary step in helping patients make informed choices about care.

Posted Feb. 21, 2011.

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There is a fundamental question for patients that they too often don't have enough information to answer: Who is a physician?

Someone looking for a physician may see an advertisement for what appears to be a medical practice. But not all "doctors" are physicians. Without a clear listing of credentials, the patient is left guessing.

That's bad enough when there is time to make a choice. It is more troubling when a patient is sick, sitting in a gown and trying to make sense of what's next. That's not the time to wonder about the qualifications of the person in scrubs who just walked into the room.

It's often said that the way to make people better patients is to have more transparency in the health care system. And one basic level of that transparency should be for medical professionals to be identified clearly by proper titles and credentials.

A bipartisan bill recently introduced in the U.S. House is taking on the issue of transparency in medical advertising. It would require anyone advertising health services to include information in the ad about the license that authorizes the health professional to provide those services. Also, the bill would make it illegal for a health professional to provide deceptive or misleading information that would make patients believe that person had training or qualifications he or she didn't have.

Two states already have similar laws. California and Arizona require medical service advertisements to include a health professional's title and license type.

Eight states take that transparency right into the exam room, either by law or by state regulation. They require that health professionals wear clearly visible name tags that show their credentials. Pennsylvania recently became the ninth state to pass such a requirement, with badges necessary by 2015. Lawmakers in other states are planning to introduce similar legislation.

Both provisions -- advertising and personal identification of health professionals -- are in model legislation the American Medical Association put together in 2010 to help assist state and specialty medical societies and lawmakers in creating a more transparent system. The legislation has been made available to consumer groups and others interested in the topic.

The intent of the model legislation is not to limit already established scopes of practice. It is not an accusation of misrepresentation by nonphysician health professionals. Its purpose is to help the patient, by making clear the qualifications of who is providing treatment.

And patients report that they often are unclear when it comes to identifying physicians from other types of practitioners. An AMA survey released Jan. 26 found that 44% of 850 adult patients said they can't tell, in an advertisement, who is actually a medical doctor.

The AMA survey also found that 69% of adults said dentists were medical doctors, 68% identified podiatrists as such, and 54% said optometrists were. Although a large majority of adults correctly identified specialists such as family physicians and dermatologists as being physicians, only 43% said otolaryngologists were -- and 33% said they weren't.

What patients aren't confused about is how they see the physician's role. A clear majority -- 83% of survey respondents -- would prefer a medical doctor to lead their care.

The reality of health care today is that patients may see a parade of medical professionals in the course of receiving care. Each one of those professionals has training and a title to wear proudly.

The proposed federal law and the AMA's model legislation treats all those professionals fairly. As should be the case, patients get the best treatment of all. They get the facts they need to determine what they want to know: Who is a physician?

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External links

Truth in Advertising Survey: 2008 and 2010 results, American Medical Association, Jan. 26 (link)

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