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Trust me, I’m a doctor… of sorts

It seems anyone can call themselves a doctor these days. Bart/Flickr

Qualifications and their associated titles allow for quick identification of appropriately trained or recognised experts within a given field. They bestow legitimacy on the information provided to people looking for expert advice.

But how does the average person decide who to reasonably trust when it seems anyone can call themselves a doctor?

Traditionally, the title doctor was reserved for medical doctors, or scholars who’d completed postgraduate training to a doctoral level, and were recognised by their peers as an expert in their field.

Indeed, a number of dictionary definitions appear to support these two categories.

Free for all

But doctor creepage has been hastening with extraordinary stealth over the last few years, particularly within health care.

I can clearly remember assuming as an adolescent that chiropractors were doctors who specialised in a particular medical domain (back care) because the title Dr preceded their name.

It wasn’t until much later that I realised that Dr Chiropractor or Dr Osteopath or Dr Vet were all equally deceptive for implying that people using the title are either medical doctors, or substantially more qualified than an undergraduate degree.

To be fair, most medical doctors also have an undergraduate degree, but that involves six or seven years of tertiary training, similar to that undertaken in total by a doctor of philosophy degree.

And I’m not suggesting that members of the aforementioned professions haven’t undergone university training suited to their practice (I’ll come to that substantially more serious problem later), but there appears to be no legal impediment to a number of bachelor degree graduates using the title doctor.

In fact, I couldn’t easily find the answer to the question of whether there’s any legal reason why plumbers, hairdressers or retired beekeepers can’t use the title!

Surely this situation is confusing because most people would assume a particular type of training (medical), or level of training (recognised expert in their field) goes hand-in-hand with this title.

Training and expertise

But there’s an even more serious related problem here, and that involves the questionable practice of representing certain kinds of “tertiary training” as comparable to university-level qualifications.

This practice is also becoming increasingly rampant in the health-care field.

Representing certain kinds of ‘tertiary training’ as comparable to university-level qualifications has become rampant in health care.

I was intrigued recently by a workshop reported by the press as being run by a “world renowned expert” allegedly “recognised as one of the foremost experts in the biochemistry of ADHD and ASD” (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism spectrum disorders).

I wanted to discover more about this presenter, whose name was followed by the letters CNC.

After consulting the individual’s website, I discovered that CNC stood for Certified Nutrition Consultant, a qualification I had not previously heard.

And here’s a tip from that experience for punters: if you type the name of a qualification into Google, and the first site in the list is Quackwatch, you’re probably justified in being suspicions about the validity of that certification.

In this case, I was unable to find any mention that the person in question had engaged in any university-level education whatsoever. Although, to be fair, perhaps she has but chooses not to clearly advertise her education on her website.

While this particular CNC-qualified expert has written a couple of books and frequently appeared in the media, I couldn’t find any trace of her authoring a published study, review, or even having presented a basic scientific overview of her “research” in any kind of peer-reviewed journal.

When I tried to find out how one obtains registration as a CNC, I eventually found myself at its supposed credentialing website, which appeared to have some sort of requirement for tertiary training, but not necessarily at university-level.

Are you qualified?

This brings me to my final point: a number of qualifications in complementary medicine cannot be obtained from a public university because, quite frankly, these institutions won’t touch them.*

Indeed, training in a number of alternative health domains is not even vaguely scientific or evidence-based, despite the pretence of being so. This has led to a variety of colleges popping up offering all sorts of questionable “qualifications”.

Now, I’m not suggesting that there’s anything wrong with people seeking alternative health options. But I dare say there’s very deliberate confusion being created by credentialing practices by these colleges, that attempt to mimic traditional markers of university-level training or expertise, presumably for personal or professional gain.

For those seeking a specific type or level of recognised expertise, the inflation of qualifications via the appropriation of the title Dr is at best unhelpful, and, at worst, deliberately disingenuous.

And those seeking a particular basis of advice (alternative versus scientific, for instance) have the unhappy task of navigating a conflation of scientific and alternative health qualifications from questionable tertiary training colleges.

Apart from the confusion this creates, it suggests level of insecurity among some health-care practitioners who may be attempting to establish their legitimacy through stealth and deceit.

* This article has been edited to remove an incorrect claim that Australian public universities do not offer bachelor’s degrees in naturopathy. Students can undertake a three-year Bachelor in Clinical Sciences at Southern Cross University with a double major in naturopathy and complementary medicine. There is also a three-year Bachelor of Applied Science in naturopathic studies at the University of Western Sydney.

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