Get Your Docs Straight

What comes to mind when you hear the word “doctor”?

Maybe it’s the pediatrician who looked in your ears and gave you shots when you were a child. Or maybe it’s the professor in college who helped guide you toward your future career. It also could be your dentist, lecturing you on not flossing every six months.

“Doctor” can mean a lot of things.

That’s why the Pennsylvania Medical Society encourages you to pay attention to who is taking care of you.

A physician is someone who went to medical school. They may either be a medical doctor (MD) or doctor of osteopathy (DO). Both MDs and DOs go through the same amount of training and pass a state licensing exam.

Other health care providers who are permitted to introduce themselves as a doctor include chiropractors, podiatrists, nurses and physician assistants who have earned a doctorate, optometrists, and dentists.

While these providers are allowed by law to call themselves doctors, they are not physicians. There are limits to what these providers may do.  For example, nurses who have earned a doctorate in nursing may prescribe some medications but need state certification to prescribe others. Optometrists cannot perform eye surgery.

All health care providers should identify their professional credentials or titles to you. Their medical or professional credentials should be clear on their nametag. In addition to MD and DO, some common credentials include:

  • PhD—A doctorate but not a physician
  • CRNP—Certified registered nurse practitioner
  • DC—Doctor of chiropractic
  • PA-C—Physician assistant
  • DDS or DMD—Doctor of dental surgery and doctor of medical dentistry

Each person who visits with you should identify themselves when they speak to you. For example, they should say, “Hi, I’m Dr. Smith.  I’m not a physician but I am doctor of psychology.” If they don’t identify themselves or if you’re unsure, it’s your right to simply ask if the person is a physician.

All of these providers are valuable members of the health care team, and it’s up to you to decide who you want to treat you or answer your personal questions. When you want to see a doctor, make sure that you are seeing an MD or DO.