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Physician or Provider?
doctor holding the hand of a patient
The problem with using “provider” instead of “physician.”

Physician or Provider?

As per longstanding House of Delegates policy, the WSMA does not use the term provider to describe its physician members and urges any organization which employs the term to describe physicians by their proper, professional titles of either physician or doctor.

Additionally, as the result of policy adopted by the WSMA House of Delegates in 2021, the WSMA is highlighting concerns related to inappropriately using one title, such as “provider,” to group all medical professionals together.

The Problem with “Provider”

In modern health care settings, there is widespread acceptance of the term “provider” to describe most types of people working in various health care professions. Unfortunately, this broad usage conceals the specificity in the qualifications and level of training for a wide variety of persons engaged in providing care. As such, using the term “provider” can lead to misunderstanding and potentially misguided decisions by patients, who often do not have the knowledge of the differences in qualifications necessary to gain specific titles.

The American Medical Association has taken strong positions against this broad usage of “provider,” passing policies in 2009 and 2019 that:

  1. Affirm that the term physician should be limited to those people that have a Doctor of Medicine degree or recognized equivalent physician degree.
  2. Urge all physicians to insist on being identified as a physician, to sign only those professional or medical documents identifying them as physicians, and to not let the term physician be used by any other organization or person involved in health care.
  3. Advocate that all references to physicians by government, payers, and other health care entities involving contracts, advertising, agreements, published descriptions, and other communications at all times distinguish between physician, as defined above, and non-physicians and to discontinue the use of the term provider.
  4. Support requiring that health care entities, when using the term “provider” in contracts, advertising, and other communications, specify the type of provider being referred to by using the provider’s recognized title which details education, training, license status, and other recognized qualifications; and supports this concept in state and federal health system reform.

Multiple medical organizations, including the American Academy of Family Physicians, American Academy of Emergency Medicine, and American College of Physicians, have all come out with position papers stating their opposition to the use of the term provider.

Recommendations for health care communicators
When possible, for clarity and to avoid confusion among professions, specify and spell out individual professions: e.g., Physicians, physician assistants, and nurse practitioners. When ‘provider’ is used to denote health care organizations, for clarity and to avoid confusion, specify organization types: e.g. Hospitals, health care systems, and medical practices.

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