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Why a Board-Certified Physician is Best for Your Health Needs

When it comes to your health, is it ever a bad idea to get care from someone highly specialized in your area of concern? Choosing a board-certified physician can have an impact on your health.

A board-certified physician studies and trains under supervision 7-15 years to obtain the skills which allows them to provide the highest quality of care. In addition, they undergo rigorous testing to obtain their certification. But not all people in white coats are board certified physicians.

Male black doctor


Board certification is not just a title but a reflection of specialized knowledge and skills that meet nationally recognized standards. It is a voluntary process that physicians undergo to demonstrate their commitment to meeting the highest standards of knowledge and skill in their respective medical field.

And it doesn’t stop there. Board-certified physicians must also have a commitment to ongoing education to keep current with evolving standards of care and to maintain this status.

Not only does selecting a board-certified physician improve the quality of your care, but it can also have a direct impact on your health. Numerous studies have shown that patients who receive care from board-certified physicians experience better outcomes and lower complication rates.

Understanding board certification in medicine

Board certification is granted by professional medical boards, which are independent organizations that assess and evaluate physicians’ knowledge, skills, and experience. These boards have specific requirements and criteria that physicians must meet to obtain, and maintain, certification. The American Board of Medical Specialties is the gold standard board for physician certification nationally. The process involves rigorous training, testing and assessment:

  • Medical school  (typically 4 years): this includes class work, laboratory work, clinical training and several standardized tests.
  •  accredited residency training program in their chosen specialty:  Residency programs are competitive to get into. They typically last three to seven years, depending on the specialty. Under the supervision of board-certified doctors, resident physicians train and are required to be exposed to specific material.
  • Board certification examination: Once the residency is completed, physicians are what is called board-eligible–meaning they are qualified to take the certification exam in their chosen field. These exams assess a physician’s knowledge, clinical skills, and decision-making abilities.
  • Performance evaluations: In some cases, such as in many of the surgical specialties, physicians must also do a certain number of extra cases after residency before they sit for the exam.
  • Fellowship training: Some specialties require additional training after residency.  If there is board-certification in these subspecialties, then there are additional requirements.
  • Maintenance of certification (MOC): Physicians certified before 1991 have been grandfathered as board-certified for life.  Physicians board-certified after 1991, however, are required to do a variety of continuing medical education activities to maintain their board certification.

It’s important to understand that physicians take several board examinations throughout medical school and residency training. These do not confer “board-certification.”

Differentiating between board-certified and non-board-certified physicians

It’s important to understand the difference between board-certified and non-board-certified physicians. This is not to say one cannot get great care from both.

While both types of physicians have completed medical school and obtained a medical degree, board-certified physicians have gone a step further to obtain certification in their respective specialty.

A licensed doctor may practice in virtually any specialty.  They may not, however, say they are board-certified in a particular specialty unless they have completed the process described above.

READ NEXT: What’s the difference between an MD and a DO?

Board certified doctor? Yes, but not in areas of practice

Sometimes doctors are board-certified in one specialty, say family practice, but choose to practice in another, such as dermatology.

They may represent that they are “board-certified”–which is correct. These physicians are just no board-certified in their area of practice- an important distinction.  They did do training– just not in the area they are providing services.

Non-board-certified physicians may still be competent and capable of providing quality care, but they have not undergone the rigorous training, testing and evaluation required for board certification.

The benefits of choosing a board-certified physician

Choosing a board-certified physician offers several benefits:

  • Commitment to ongoing education and staying updated on the latest medical advancements. This ensures that they are equipped with the most up-to-date knowledge and skills to provide accurate diagnoses and effective treatments.
  • better patient outcomes. Numerous studies have shown that patients who receive care from board-certified physicians experience better outcomes and lower complication rates. This can be attributed to the rigorous training and assessment that board-certified physicians undergo, which ensures that they have the necessary expertise to provide high-quality care.
  • Strict code of ethics and professional standards: They are committed to providing the highest quality of care to their patients and are held accountable for their actions. This commitment to professionalism and ethical conduct is essential in establishing trust and confidence between patients and their physicians. Board certification is associated with a reduced risk of professional discipline.

Female Doc

MOC controversy and “scope creep”

Through legislation non-physicians who are not residency trained or board certified have gained the permission to perform many services and procedures independently historically only performed by physicians. These increased privileges come without additional requirements for education and training. This is known as “scope creep.”

Scope creep creates concerns about patient safety. MOC (maintenance of certification) continues expanding the demands to keep board-certification on physicians. It becomes questionable as to why doctors who already did the formal education, training, and who already have a much higher level of accountability have to continually proven themselves qualified to provide the same services that professionals who never had the same training are now being allowed to provide without supervision.

And the problem with supervision is that there are no accredited standards of supervision. The rules vary from state-to-state. And it is patients who pay the price as studies show that poorly supervised physician extenders provide subpar care.

A doctor who isn’t a physician

Although the title ‘doctor” is most commonly assumed to mean medical doctor recently this has become controversial. Some view this a matter of transparency and patient safety.  Others view it as a matter of pride or rights.

Physicians have either an MD (medical doctor) or DO (Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine) degree.  Other clinical doctorate degrees that are called doctor in a patient-care setting include dental degrees, podiatric medicine, optometry, clinical psychology, and naturopathic medicine.

Not all doctors are physicians. Lawyers, for example, are also doctors as they hold the juris doctorate (J.D.) degree. Lawyers, however, are not to use the title “doctor” in a medical setting. Nor are medical students who start school already as a “doctor” with a PhD in biochemistry to identify this way to patients as these are not clinical doctorates.

Commonly now physician assistants and nurse practitioners get PhD degrees which do not bestow on them any greater clinical privilege.  Often these degrees are in administrative areas. They have doctorates but still are not physicians.  Some argue that they, however, should be able to use the title “Dr.” in the clinical setting and even claim. Others argue that this serves only to confuse them with physicians and is deceptive to patients. 

Read next: What’s the difference between and MD and a DO?

How to verify a physician’s board certification

Verifying a physician’s board certification is a crucial step in ensuring that you are choosing a qualified and competent healthcare provider. Fortunately, there are several resources available that allow you to verify a physician’s board certification.

One such resource is the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS) website. The ABMS is a non-profit organization that oversees the certification of medical specialists in the United States. Their website provides a search tool that allows you to verify a physician’s board certification by entering their name and specialty.

Another resource is the website of the specific medical board that grants certification in the physician’s specialty. These medical boards typically have a search feature that allows you to verify a physician’s certification by entering their name or license number.

It’s important to note that board certification is subject to periodic renewal. Physicians must meet certain requirements and undergo ongoing evaluation to maintain their certification. Therefore, it’s advisable to verify a physician’s board certification periodically to ensure that it is up to date.

Given the burden of MOC, some physicians are transferring their certification from the American Board of Medical Specialties to boards the provide an alternative way to maintain their credentials.

Is it okay to ask what kind of license your provider has?

Absolutely.  Patients have a right to know the education, training and licensing of their provider.

Do I have a right to ask for a doctor?

Yes, you have a right to ask for a doctor.

Many hospitals and large practices may first offer you a non-physician as this is more economical for them. This may even seem more convenient, but if they are not knowledgeable or supervised properly, this may cause harm. Many health insurance plans and malpractice insurance companies do not authorize non-physicians to see new patients independently. In non-emergency situations it may be worth it to wait to see an MD or DO.

Common misconceptions about board certification

There are some common misconceptions about board certification that are important to address. One misconception is that all physicians are automatically board-certified. In reality, board certification is a voluntary process that physicians must actively pursue. Not all physicians choose to pursue board certification, and therefore, not all physicians are board-certified.

Another misconception is that board certification is the only factor to consider when choosing a physician. While board certification is an important consideration, it should not be the sole determining factor. Other factors, such as experience, reputation, and patient reviews, should also be taken into account when choosing a physician.

It’s also worth noting that board certification does not guarantee a perfect outcome or a flawless physician. Board-certified physicians, like any other healthcare provider, can make mistakes or encounter challenges. However, board certification does provide assurance that the physician has met a certain level of expertise and competence in their specialty.

Board certified PA? Provider? -ologist? Know the difference

WARNING: Do not confuse board certification for physicians with board certification for other “providers.”

Increasingly non-physicians are providing healthcare throughout the country. Including physician assistants and nurse practitioners, also called physician extenders, on a health care team can increase access to care. As the education and training is significantly shorter, the rate of non-physicians in the healthcare workforce is growing fast.

Of concern, however, is that physician extenders with inadequate training are often offered as independent “providers” of healthcare. They may work independently or with supervision which is not standardized.  This can put patients at risk.

The popularity of the term “provider” in healthcare concerns physicians as it seeks to conceal from patients whether they are seeing an actual Doctor of Medicine, or someone with significantly less education and training. Some states have even outlawed the use of the suffix “-ologist” by anyone other than a physician as this also may confuse the public.

And although it is illegal for physician extenders to represent themselves as doctors to patients, unsuspecting patients sometimes assume that the person in the white coat in front of them is a physician–and their “provider” may not correct them.

Not all board certification is the same

What is called board certification by physician assistants and nurse practitioners is also very different for physician extenders than for doctors— particularly in specialty spaces.  This leads to a lot of confusion about the “providers” education, training, and other qualifications– which affects their ability to provide care.


Physician vs extender comparison
There is no denying the difference in education and training in the workforce


Throughout medical education and training, physicians take many tests called board examinations.  Passing these initial board examinations are usually a requirement to earn an M.D. or D.O. degree. They do not, however, bestow a designation of board certification. Passing these examinations and completing medical school just makes someone a doctor. Becoming a board-certified physician in any particular specialty requires years of additional, accredited training as describe above.

More differences

Physician Assistant education, for example, is very different. It prepares them to work in healthcare under the supervision of a doctor. Although their background most prepares them to work with a doctor in primary care, they can change specialties at any time.  They can do this because they are supposed to be supervised. PAs must also pass a board examination to get licensed. They, however, take on the designation of “board-certified PA” by simply being a PA who is qualified to practice. Essentially, PA-C, which stands for physician assistant- certified, means one can practice. It does not indicate additional training as it does with a physician.

Understanding this difference in the meaning of board certified with respect to physicians and physician extenders, is important especially when looking for specialty care. Extenders working specialties often advertise themselves as “board-certified [fill in the specialty]” PA or NP suggesting that they are the equivalent of a board-certified physician in that field– when all it may mean is that they work with one. They may have no specialty training or experience in that field. There are some private companies that bestow “board certification” in specialties for non-physicians, however, these are in no way equivalent to the process for physicians. Verifying board certification specialty training for non-doctors is also challenging.

An example

For example, a “board-certified PA” with 10-years of experience working in pediatrics can then start working with a psychiatrist without additional training. This does not mean they are a board-certified psychiatry PA with 10 years of experience in psychiatry. A physician who was board-certified in pediatrics who had worked for 10 years, could also switch, however, they would have to do an accredited residency training program in psychiatry, pass the board examination and participate in all the other required activities in order to legally use the designation board-certified psychiatrist.  There is no equivalent American Board of Medical Specialties for physician assistants and nurse practitioners or universally 


Conclusion: Making informed decisions about your healthcare

When it comes to your health, it’s important to make informed decisions. Choosing a board-certified physician is an important way of ensuring that you receive high-quality care. Board certification demonstrates a physician’s commitment to meeting the highest standards of expertise in their respective specialty. You have the right to know.

Board certification is not the only factor to consider when choosing a physician, but it is an important one. Other factors, such as experience, and reputation should also be taken into account. However, board certification provides assurance that the physician has met a certain level of expertise and competence in their specialty.

So, whether you’re seeking routine check-ups or specialized medical care, choosing a board-certified physician should be a top priority. Don’t compromise on the quality of your healthcare – prioritize your well-being by selecting a physician with the proper credentials and expertise.