Different Types of Doctors & Advanced Practitioners

Different Types of Doctors & Advanced Practitioners

Health care credentials, or the letters behind names, can be confusing. What does MD stand for? What is a DO? What is a nurse practitioner versus a physician assistant? We’ve asked a panel of UnityPoint Health experts to answer these questions, helping you learn more about your care team.

What Does MD Stand For?

William Yost, MD, explains that MD stands for “medical doctor,” and MD is nearly identical with “physician.” But, to earn the title of MD, many years of training is required.

“Medical training is long, to say the least,” Dr. Yost says. “Physicians first complete an undergraduate degree, which usually requires four years of study. Some will also choose to complete a master’s degree, which isn’t required, before going to medical school, which requires an additional four years.”

By the time a physician receives his or her degree, they have invested 8-10 years in post-secondary education. They are now qualified to begin residency training in their chosen specialty, and residency involves a minimum of three additional years of training under supervision. Depending upon specialty, residency may mean as much as seven additional years of training. All told, the minimum period of training and education after high school is 11 years, and often, 15 or more years.

“The end goal of all the education and training is to graduate someone who is ready to take on the ‘unsupervised and independent practice of medicine’,” Dr. Yost says.

What is a DO?

Julia Jenkins, DO, says the degree DO, or “doctor of osteopathic medicine,” also means “physician.” Physicians with DO degrees also complete the long educational training requirements like their MD counterparts, but Dr. Jenkins explains the main difference between the two degrees.

“The major difference in the education between MDs and DOs is that DOs receive additional training in musculoskeletal and neurological systems of the body, called osteopathic medicine” Dr. Jenkins says. “This additional education is the foundation for osteopathic manipulative treatments, or OMT. OMT is a hands-on approach to medicine and healing and is used to treat muscle and joint pain, as well as to help the body heal from all sorts of medical problems.”

There are many different types of OMT, ranging from traditional adjustments to soft tissue work, or techniques to improve lymphatic drainage. Dr. Jenkins says that while all DOs are trained in OMT, not all DOs continue to use it regularly. She recommends patients ask when scheduling an appointment if they prefer to see someone who uses OMT in their practice.

MDs and DOs work side by side in hospitals and clinics and are virtually indistinguishable from one another.

Nurse Practitioner vs. Physician Assistant

Nurse practitioners and physician assistants also play an important role in providing patient care. Kelly Hassman, ARNP, says ARNP means “advanced registered nurse practitioner.”

“All ARNPs must complete a master's or doctoral degree program in nursing and have advanced clinical training beyond that of a registered nurse,” Hassman says. “ARNP's must pass an examination to receive national certification in a patient population focus and be certified by the board of nursing in the state in which they practice.”

Similarly, PA-Cs, or “physician assistant certified,” must complete master’s level education that requires a bachelor’s degree, specific classes and patient care hours. Once accepted to a physician assistant school, training includes at least one year of classroom education and one year of clinical rotations. Josh Gustafson, PA-C, explains one of the key differences between ARNPs and PA-Cs.

“The PA-C degree requires supervision by a physician, either MD or DO, to practice,” Gustafson says. “There are basic guidelines that require 30 percent of PA-C charts to be reviewed by a physician, and PA-Cs can only perform medicine with which his/her supervising physician is comfortable.”

As the shortage of primary care providers continues, Hassman says both ARNPs and PA-Cs offer great health access options for communities.

“Nurses practitioners and physician assistants focus on the whole person in formulating diagnosis and treatment plans. At UnityPoint Health, you’ll find ARNPs and PA-Cs in a variety of clinics and in a variety of roles. Their flexibility to adapt to meet both patient and organizational needs makes them very valuable in today's challenging health care environment,” Hassman says.

How the Whole Care Team Works Together

Regardless of credentials or titles, Dr. Yost emphasizes how each member of the care team each has the same goal: Best Outcome Every Patient Every Time.

“Every member of a care team brings unique strengths and skill sets to the care of that patient. It’s is essential we work closely and effectively together in order to provide the best care possible. There’s no way for us to be experts in all areas, and doctors and providers know how to draw upon the resources of the team,” Dr. Yost says.


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