Deciphering Medical Professionals’  Degrees: What Do All Those Letters Mean?

what is a DO

Choosing a healthcare provider should be more thoughtful than settling on one with an office nearby (though ease of getting there should be one factor in your decision). 

Of course, to save costs, you also need a doctor that accepts your health insurance. What else are your considerations? Does your doctor share your interest in acupuncture, for example? If you see a naturopath, do you still need a Western-style MD? Who will you see for regular wellness checkups, a medical doctor, a nurse practitioner or a physician assistant? What’s the difference between them anyway? What is a DO? We spell it out for you below.

Medical Doctor (MD)

What they do: A physician, or medical doctor, with an MD after his or her name can diagnose and treat disease, prescribe medicines, order tests and refer you to specialists. Depending on their specialty, they may also perform surgery. These physicians work in hospitals and primary-care settings. 

How they’re trained: An MD has completed four years of undergraduate work, four years of medical school and three to seven years of residency training, where they work under supervision with patients. Some will undergo additional training through fellowships in specialties like gynecology, gastroenterology, neurology or surgery. 

Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO)

What they do: Like MDs, those with DO degrees are also physicians. They diagnose and treat disease, order tests and prescribe medicines. Some perform surgery depending on their specialty. They may also treat your muscles and joints through stretching and applying pressure or showing you how to do it.

How they’re trained: A DO has completed four years of undergraduate work, four years of osteopathic medical school, three to seven years of residency training and, in some cases, additional fellowships in specialties like gynecology, gastroenterology, neurology or surgery, just as MDs do. It’s mainly the medical school that is slightly different for DOs than for MDs. There, DOs spend a portion of the time learning about the musculoskeletal system and body-manipulation strategies, like movement and stretching.

Nurse Practitioner (NP)

What they do: Like a physician, a nurse practitioner (NP) can diagnose and treat illnesses, order tests and prescribe treatments and medicines. They are primary-care providers and don’t need a physician’s supervision to make decisions about patient care. They do not perform surgery. Many patients use NPs as their primary-care providers in lieu of MDs or DOs. 

How they’re trained: A nurse practitioner must have a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in nursing. Many master’s programs require that applicants already have had several years of nursing experience, too. Some NPs also have Phds or doctorates in nursing (DNP). 

Physician Assistant (PA)

What they do: Physician assistants work under a physician and can provide many of the same services as MDs, including diagnosing, treating and prescribing medicines for patients with certain illnesses or injuries. 

How they’re trained: Physician assistants usually have a bachelor’s degree, plus a master’s from a physician assistant training program. These licensed professionals have western medical training and are licensed to diagnose, order tests and prescribe medicines, but they work under the supervision of a physician. Their care is usually covered by insurance, but you should check, because they may be covered at a lower rate. 

Naturopath and Naturopathic Doctor (ND, NMD)

What they do: The terminology can be confusing. A licensed naturopathic doctor (ND, NMD) is a medical professional who can diagnose, prescribe medicines and treat illnesses. But not all naturopathic-care providers have an ND or an NMD.

How they’re trained: After obtaining a bachelor’s degree, a professional on track to become a licensed naturopathic doctor spends four years at a naturopathic medical school, which teaches both conventional Western medicine as well as concepts in homeopathy, botany and nutrition. Some of them specialize in acupuncture or other treatments. 

However, because there’s scant regulation of these designations, some who call themselves naturopaths, traditional naturopaths or even naturopathic doctors are frauds and have little to no medical training. Before setting up an appointment with someone in the naturopathic world, research the person’s credentials.

Board Certified 

Additionally, your MD or DO physician can get a board certification as a specialist in a range of fields, including integrative medicine. To achieve this designation, the professional must pursue extra training in the specialty and pass a test. 

Alternative Healthcare Providers 

The providers, below, may be seen in addition to those above or, in some cases, in lieu of them. Be sure to check first if your insurance covers them. Medicare, for example, covers only specific chiropractic and acupuncture treatments for a limited number of visits.

Midwife (CNM, CM, CPM)

What they do: Midwives provide prenatal care and deliver babies. Some midwives can provide other gynecological care as well, and they may collaborate with physicians if a C-section is required or other complications arise during pregnancy or childbirth.

How they’re trained: A certified nurse-midwife (CNM) has a nursing degree and a master’s or doctoral degree in nurse-midwifery. They must pass a board exam from the American Midwifery Certification Board. Some midwives, called Certified Midwives (CMs), Certified Professional Midwives (CPMs) or Lay Midwives, do not have a nursing background and are prohibited from practicing in certain states. 

Doctor of Chiropractic, Chiropractor (DC) 

What they do: Chiropractors use their hands and other instruments to treat pain and other conditions by manipulating your muscles and skeleton. Most people who visit chiropractors for pain treatment do so regularly, as opposed to receiving a single treatment. Chiropractors do not perform surgery or prescribe drugs.

How they’re trained: Chiropractors attend four years of chiropractic school, which is different from medical school, and pass a licensing exam. Some chiropractors also complete residencies in another speciality, like sports medicine or acupuncture, which takes two to three years.

Acupuncturist (LAc, Lic. Ac.,FIAMA, MAO)

What they do: Acupuncture is a type of traditional Chinese medicine that uses small needles injected into the skin to stimulate specific areas and treat various ailments. Acupuncturists do not perform surgery or prescribe medications. In some hospitals, they may work as a part of a team that delivers complementary and alternative medicines to patients who are also being treated by physicians. 

How they’re trained: Licensed acupuncturists need a master’s degree, although some have doctorates, too. Their curriculum focuses on ancient Chinese medicinal practices and sometimes includes other topics like nutrition and anatomy. LAc and Lic. Ac. stands for licensed acupuncturist; FIAMA, for Fellow, International Academy of Medical Acupuncture; and MAO, for Master, Art of Oriental Medicine.

Extra Training for Holistic Healthcare Providers 

When seeking a new healthcare provider, some people want assurance that their doctor is open to alternative treatments and will consider diet and lifestyle as part of a patient’s treatment plan. Here are some certifications and training that physicians and other care providers can pursue that encourage holisms.

Integrative Medicine

Integrative medicine is not associated with a specific level of care or education.  The practitioners are often health coaches, meaning they do not have medical or nursing training and do not prescribe medicines. In some hospitals, they work as a part of a team with doctors and nurses, providing supplementary care to patients. However, different healthcare providers at other levels, like MDs and nurses can also receive integrative medicine training as part of fellowships or master’s level certifications.

Functional Medicine

Like integrative medicine, functional medicine is a type of secondary specialty. To be eligible for the designation, a healthcare practitioner must already have master’s level education (like a physician assistant, nutritionist or MD), complete work in seven courses and pass a test. For most people, all of this takes between two and two and a half years.

Although the functional medicine certification is not recognized by medical boards, it can tell you that your practitioner is interested in applying dietary and lifestyle strategies to improve your overall health, while also treating and preventing disease.


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