Practicing medicine without a license is a crime, but it seems to have become a hollow law. Politicians are now cynically legalizing it by granting prescribing privileges to individuals with no prior foundation of medical training. Perhaps it is because of serious ignorance of the difference between psychiatry and psychology or MD and PhD degrees. Or perhaps it is a quid pro quo to generous donors to their re-election campaigns who seek a convenient shortcut to the 28,000 hours it takes to become a psychiatrist in 8 years of medical school and psychiatric residency—and that comes after 4 years of college.
I recently consulted an attorney to discuss some legal documents. When he asked me what my line of work is, I then asked him if he knew the difference between a psychiatrist and a psychologist. He hesitated before admitting in an embarrassed tone that he did not really know and thought that they were all “shrinks” and very similar. I then informed him that both go through undergraduate college education, albeit taking very different courses, with pre-med scientific emphasis for future psychiatric physicians and predominately psychology emphasis for future psychologists.
However, psychiatrists then attend medical school for 4 years and rotate on multiple hospital-based medical specialties, such as internal medicine, surgery, pediatrics, obstetrics and gynecology, family medicine, neurology, pathology, psychiatry, ophthalmology, dermatology, anesthesia, radiology, otolaryngology, etc.
Psychologists, on the other hand, take additional advanced psychology courses in graduate school and write a dissertation that requires quite a bit of library time. After getting a MD, future psychiatrists spend 4 years in extensive training in residency programs across inpatient wards and outpatient clinics, assessing the physical and mental health of seriously sick patients with emphasis on both pharmacological and psychotherapeutic treatments for serious psychiatric disorders in patients, the majority of whom have comorbid medical conditions as well. Psychologists, on the other hand, spend 1 year of internship after getting their PhD or PsyD degree, essentially focused on developing counseling and psychotherapy skills. By the time they complete their training, psychologists and psychiatrists have disparate skills: heavily medical and pharmacological skills in psychiatrists and strong psychotherapeutic skills in psychologists.
After this long explanation, I asked the attorney what he thought about psychologists seeking prescription privileges. He was astounded that psychologists would attempt to expand this scope of practice through state legislations rather than going through medical training like all physicians. “That would be like practicing medicine without a license, which is a felony,” he said. He wryly added that his fellow malpractice and litigation lawyers will be the big winners while poorly treated patients will be the biggest losers. Being an avid runner, he also added that such a short-cut to prescribe without the requisite years of medial training reminded him of Rosie Ruiz, who snuck into the Boston marathon a couple of miles before the finish line and “won” the race, before she was caught and discredited.1