Many types of practitioners use the title “Doctor”. The alphabet soup that follows each doctor’s name isn’t always easy to decipher though. Most people know that an M.D. is a medical doctor. But, a D.O. is also a medical doctor and undergoes similar rigorous education and may train alongside the M.D. graduates. While these two degrees signify physicians, other types of practitioners are also called doctors.
M.D. – Medical Doctor
A physician with an M.D. designation is a traditional or allopathic medical doctor. This is the most common credential for clinical physicians and surgeons. This doctor has graduated from an accredited four-year medical school after graduating from college. Clinicians with Medical Doctor credentials must meet difficult academic standards both before and during medical school. In the United States, only those applicants with the highest grade point averages from reputable colleges will gain admission to medical school. They must also excel on the MCAT—the Medical College Admission Test. The competition is fierce and most people who apply will not be accepted into a U.S. medical school.
D.O. – Doctor of Osteopathy
The osteopathic doctor with these initials is also licensed to practice medicine. Osteopathic medical schools set their own admission standards, promotion requirements and curriculum. The D.O. degree is awarded after four years of medical school just as for allopathic doctors. Osteopathic medicine started as an alternative to traditional medical practice in the late nineteenth century. Initially, osteopathic treatment focused on manipulation of bones, muscles and joints to prevent and cure disease. Some manipulative therapy is still taught in osteopathic medical schools. Osteopathic doctors are often thought of as taking a more holistic or preventative approach to the patient, while allopathic practitioners focus on the biologic cause of disease and its treatment. While this may be true historically, and still in some current clinicians, much of osteopathic medicine is now indistinguishable from allopathic practice as all physicians try to optimize both prevention and treatment of disease.
Other abbreviations after a physician’s name may indicate fulfillment of the requirements to become board certified and membership in a specialty organization. Membership usually requires a nomination or application followed by acceptance by the membership council. In some specialties, application is all that is required. For others, research or reputation may be considered and membership may be more limited. Examples include FACP, which stands for “Fellow, American College of Physicians”, and FACS for “Fellow, American College of Surgeons”. There are many others like this for the various specialties, usually beginning with the letters “F.A.”
Naturopaths - also known as "Doctors of Naturopathy", "Doctors of Natural Medicine" or "Naturopathic Physicians" receive their education through a four-year degree program that confers a Doctorate in Naturopathy (ND) or Doctorate in Naturopathic Medicine (NMD).
While not all states recognize the N.D. degree or license Naturopathic Doctors, some do. Naturopathic clinicians receive education in both traditional and “natural” medicine with an emphasis on preventive care and healthy lifestyle choices. These clinicians have the option to complete a residency program. For a side by side comparison of education and training involved in becoming a family physician versus a naturopathic physician visit the AAFP.org
The term "Naturopathic Physician" is often confused with “naturopath” or exploited by people who call themselves Naturopathic Doctors without any formal training. When uncertainty exists about the training and qualifications of someone claiming to practice naturopathic medicine, a call or visit to the website of the state’s licensing board should be able to clarify the issue. Because of the lack of regulation of some individuals claiming to be natural doctors, caution should be exercised when visiting one of these practitioners.
More Doctors: Chiropractors, Pharmacists, Dentists, Optometrists & More
Finally, there are other accredited, non-physician practitioners who are also called “Doctor”. Chiropractors do not go to medical school, but graduate from chiropractic school with a Doctor of Chiropractic degree, abbreviated D.C. Dentists may hold D.D.S or D.M.D. credentials for Doctor of Dental Surgery or Doctor of Dental Medicine, respectively. Ph.D. stands for Doctor of Philosophy and may be obtained in a wide variety of science and non-science fields. Pharmacists use Pharm.D. to signify those who have achieved the highest ranks in pharmacy education. Also included, among others, in the list would be optometrists (O.D.), veterinarians (D.V.M) and doctorate-level psychologists (Psy.D.). Doctorate level education may also be attained in nursing, conferring D.N.P. for Doctor of Nursing Practice, in audiology, earning an Au.D., in podiatry (D.P.M.) and for physical therapy (DPT).
Each of the legitimate doctors underwent education and training beyond a college degree to become experts in their respective fields. Gaining admission to an accredited professional school, graduating with a doctorate, passing the board exams and obtaining licensing requires hard work and dedication and these professionals have all earned the title Doctor through these efforts.