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The Credentials Practicing Physicians Must Have

In the United States, we look to medical professionals to help us with our health care needs because they are specifically qualified and trained to do so.


There are only two types of medical doctors licensed in the U.S.:  those who obtain the degree of Medical Doctor (MD), also known as allopathic doctors, and those who obtain the degree of Doctor of Osteopathy (DO). Despite just having the two main classifications, there are many individual specialties for medical doctors. In fact, MDs and ODs today can pursue a specialty certification in 24 different fields. That total is expected to grow over time as more sub-specialties are identified.

There are other doctorate level health care degrees that can be obtained, as well, including:
  • Doctor of Dental Science (DDS)
  • Doctor of Medical Dentistry (DMD)
  • Doctor of Podiatric Medicine (DPM)
  • Doctor of Pharmacy (Pharm.D)
  • Doctor of Optometry (OD)
  • Doctor of Chiropractic (DC)


Nurses often are the ones who spend the most time with patients. Different types of nursing licenses include Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN), Registered Nurse (RN) and Advanced Practical Nurse (APN). Registered Nurses can pursue a certification in several different specialty areas.

In addition to doctors and nurses, there are a host of therapists, technicians, technologists, aides, and assistants who provide health care today.

With so many of these specialists having overlapping duties, it can be difficult to know who is responsible should something go wrong with your medical care. Despite this, it is important to remember that nearly everyone who is involved in your care should be licensed in the state in which they practice, and if they are not doctorate level providers, they should be supervised by a physician. That means they are covered by insurance for malpractice and negligence, whether through the physician in charge, clinic, hospital, pharmacy, nursing home, university, rehabilitation facility, or individually.

For all physicians, a nationally administered test needs to be passed before they can apply for state licensure. This test, sponsored by the National Board of Medical Examiners, evaluates whether a doctor-in-training is qualified to become a nationally licensed physician. Further examinations must be passed for board certification in many specialty fields, such as internal medicine or family practice. Even more tests must be passed for potential surgeons. Though a board certification is not required by any means, it is almost impossible for a physician to work without one - for instance, malpractice insurance is very difficult to obtain without board certification.

Physicians may also apply for clinical privileges in any hospital or clinic in which they intend to work. In this scenario, the doctor is given special permission by the institution to practice in an area that he or she is not adequately trained for. Should any negligent acts result in a malpractice suit, the institution granting the clinical privileges would then be held legally responsible.