What you need to know about your doctor’s medical credentials
Looking at a list of doctors and the medical credentials that follow their names can feel like staring into a bowl of alphabet soup. As a patient, you know that those abbreviations denote important degrees, but is there a difference between one type of doctor and another? How do credentials affect the care you will receive?
“Knowing that someone has professional medical training is a good start, but when you’re getting medical care, you may want to know more,” said George Yoo, M.D., FACS, Chief Medical Officer at the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute. “It is important to understand a doctor’s training as well as their specialties to ensure you get the best care for your individual needs.”
M.D. stands for Doctor of Medicine. In the United States, M.D. is the most traditional medical degree. To earn this credential, M.D.s must attend four years of medical school and complete an internship and residency following a four-year undergraduate degree. This schooling prepares M.D.s to practice research-based medicine using tools such as prescription drugs, medical technology and surgery. Many with this degree will choose to specialize in one area of medicine.
D.O. stands for Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine. While physicians with this degree follow a similar educational path as those with M.D. credentials -- four years of medical school after receiving an undergraduate degree plus an internship and residency – D.O.s follow an osteopathic approach, which focuses on the whole body. These physicians look at the ways that body systems work together and contribute to holistic health. They often focus on prevention and may work in the primary care setting. However, some may pursue specialized training to work in a particular field of medicine.
“My training as a D.O. has helped me to see my patients as a whole, to care for them comprehensively, and to help them through the challenge of facing cancer,” said Michael Dominello, D.O., radiation oncologist and leader of the neuro-oncology multidisciplinary team at Karmanos Cancer Institute.
Ph.D. stands for Doctor of Philosophy. Those achieving this degree focus on research in a particular field, which can be in the medical arena or another. For example, it is possible to earn a Ph.D. in archaeology, communication and numerous other areas. Requirements may vary between fields but generally, earning a Ph.D. is the highest university degree and requires original research, writing a thesis and defending that thesis. Those with a Ph.D. may be referred to as doctors, but they are not qualified to practice medicine unless they have also earned an M.D.
Doctors who wish to specialize in a particular field of medicine may pursue a fellowship. Securing a fellowship is highly competitive and reserved for those at the top of their fields. During a fellowship, a doctor works closely with a specialist to learn alongside them. Upon completion, fellowship training can add letters to a provider’s title. For example, FAAD stands for Fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology and FACOG for Fellow of The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Seeing these credentials behind your doctor’s title can ensure that they have specialized knowledge in their field.
Advanced Practice Providers
Advanced practice providers (APPs) are health care professionals who work closely with doctors to perform medical tasks and analyses. APPs often offer more appointment availability than physicians and can provide a variety of the services that doctors do, including conducting physical exams, ordering lab work and prescribing medication. The services provided by APPs may vary due to differing licensure from state to state.
NP stands for nurse practitioner. These APPs are registered nurses (RN) who complete additional training and earn a graduate degree. Their training follows the nursing model, which focuses on overall care and preventative health. NPs often work with specialized populations such as pediatrics or women.
NPs who wish to specialize in a particular field may take specific coursework during their graduate programs or complete further training after graduation. For example, nurses working in cancer care can obtain an OCN designation, which stands for oncology certified nurse. To earn these letters, NPs must meet rigorous eligibility criteria and pass a three-hour test. Other specialized designations are also available.
“Earning my OCN designation was challenging but very worth it,” said Pam Laszewski, BSN, RN, OCN, clinical leader, radiation oncology. “Not only do I feel a sense of accomplishment, I know that my patients can see how dedicated I am to practicing oncology nursing. I honestly cannot imagine working in another field. Caring for cancer patients is both rewarding and challenging.”
PA stands for physician’s assistant. After receiving an undergraduate degree, students must obtain a PA degree at the master’s level, which generally takes three years, including classroom work and clinical rotations. They often serve as principal healthcare providers. PA training follows the medical model, which emphasizes diagnosis, assessment and disease management.
Beyond the letters
While the designations explained above are the most common, you may see other letters following your provider’s name. Most likely, they have worked hard to earn specialized credentials and will be happy to explain what they mean, so do not be afraid to ask.
If you are being treated for a chronic disease such as cancer, you should do your research to determine whether your provider is a specialist in their field. Karmanos Cancer Institute's online physician directory makes it easy to see a doctor’s specialties along with their educational background, training, awards received and other information to help narrow down your search and find the best provider for your individual needs. At Karmanos, providers are focused solely on cancer, which allows them to provide the most up-to-date treatments and information. When faced with a deadly disease, credentials and the experience that comes with them can give you your best chance.
The Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute is headquartered in midtown Detroit with 14 other locations throughout Michigan. It is the only National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated comprehensive cancer center in the area and one of just 51 centers of its kind in the United States. For more information, visit their website. Appointments can be scheduled online or by calling 1-800-KARMANOS.