Physician's and Surgeon's Credentials
When looking for a physician or surgeon, patients generally see many credentials and certifications listed by prospective providers. Many times these credentials are confusing, and there is little opportunity to weigh the relative value of seemingly similar credentials. The following provides a brief explanation of the credentials used by physicians and surgeons.
With an MD or DO degree and a license, an individual may practice any kind of medicine with or without additional special training. For example, doctors with a license but no special training may call themselves plastic surgeons. This is why board certification is such an important factor.
For those practicing with an MD degree, twenty-five specialties are recognized by the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS). For DO providers, eighteen boards certify in 106 specialties under the sponsorship of the American Osteopathic Association (AOA). Doctors who have qualified for such specialization are called board certified; they have completed an approved residency and passed the board's exam. Board certified doctors are referred to as Diplomates of the Board.
While many doctors who are not board certified do call themselves specialists, board certification is the good standard by which to measure competence and training.
You can be confident that doctors who are board certified have at a minimum the proper training in their specialty and have demonstrated their proficiency through supervision and testing. While there are many non-board certified doctors who are highly competent, it is more difficult to assess the level of their training. Naturally, board certification alone does not guarantee competence, but it is a standard that reflects successful completion of an appropriate training program.
There are doctors without board certification who are highly competent, including many who have been more recently trained and are waiting to take the boards. They are sometimes described as "board eligible," a common term that is, however, frowned upon by the ABMS. Board eligible means that the doctor has completed an approved residency and is qualified to sit for the board exams. Most of the specialty boards permit unlimited attempts to pass the exam. Only the American Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM) continues to use and recognize the term board eligible. The other boards neither use the term, nor sanction its use. The description "board eligible" should not be viewed as a real qualification, especially if a doctor has been out of medical school long enough to have taken the certification exams. To the boards, a doctor is either board certified or not. In some cases, doctors who have failed the exams twice continue to call themselves board eligible. In osteopathic medicine, the board eligible status is recognized only for the first six years after completion of a residency.
Self-Designated Medical Specialties
In addition to the ABMS and AOA approved list of specialties and subspecialties, there is a wide variety of other doctors, and groups of doctors, who may call themselves specialists. There are, at present, at least 100 such groups called self-designated medical specialties. They range from doctors who are working to create a recognized body of knowledge and subspecialty training to less formal groups interested in a particular approach to the practice of medicine. These groups may or may not have standards for membership. There is no way of determining the true extent of their members' training, and they are not recognized by the ABMS or the AOA. While you should be cautious of doctors who claim they are specialists in these areas, many do have advanced training, and the groups at least offer a listing of people interested in a particular approach to medical care.
Medical Society Membership
Most medical society memberships sound very prestigious and some are; however, there are many societies that are not very selective and which virtually any doctor can join. In addition, membership in many of the more prestigious societies is based on research and publication, or on leadership in the field, and may have little to do with direct patient care. While it is clearly an honor to be invited to join these groups, membership may be less than helpful in discerning whether a doctor can meet your needs as a provider.
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