Decoding Commonly Used Terms at your Doctor’s Office

Decoding Commonly Used Terms at your Doctor’s Office

Jul 13 2016

From MD to DO, or APP to PA, medical acronyms and credentials are hard to decipher, but there are key differences.

When you schedule your visit with your primary care office, they may use terms like “provider,” “advanced practice provider” or “physician” and many more.

These are all terms that refer to medical professionals who can provide direction over health care for patients in an office. But if you’re thinking to yourself, what’s the difference? You’re not alone.

Many people don’t understand the initials following their doctor’s name and how that acronym reflects a difference in education, training levels and to what extent they are able to provide care.

Here’s your guide to interpret some of the medical profession’s commonly used credentials and terms:

APP: Advanced Practice Provider is a general term that includes physician assistants (PAs) and nurse practitioners (NPs), among other health care professionals. They conduct physical exams, diagnose and treat illnesses, order and read tests, prescribe medication and counsel on preventive health care. They also perform office procedures and help coordinate your care with specialists when needed.

DO: A Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine has a special focus on the muscular and skeletal systems of the body while in medical school. DOs treat the whole body with an increased focus on wellness, and use that mindset when diagnosing and putting together the treatment plan.   

MD: A Medical Doctor is the most common degree sought by doctors in the United States. Similar to DOs, MDs go through four years of undergraduate school followed by four years of graduate school for medicine. MDs can diagnose and treat patients but many MDs do not end up pursuing primary care but rather specialize in a specific practice of medicine.

NP: Nurse Practitioners are typically in the primary care office. They are also called advanced practice registered nurses (APRN). This profession is qualified to order treatments for patients, prescribe medications, make referrals for a variety of conditions, as well as other routine medical needs.

PA: A Physician Assistant practices medicine under the direction of a physician. PAs have routine appointments with patients and are able to complete a similar care role as a physician, such as diagnosing illnesses, developing treatment plans, prescribing medications and more.

Physician: A physician is a term that can be used interchangeably with doctor. Physicians have an MD or DO degree and must be board certified on the national level, as well as licensed in the state in which they practice.

Provider: The term provider is used when talking about any of the people above. They are providing direction over your health, through assessments, diagnosis, prescriptions, etc.

Don’t be afraid to ask the role of your provider at your next visit and what their credentials mean. This way you can get a better understanding of who is providing your care and whether they have the credentials and expertise that you’re looking for.

Sign up for our monthly e-newsletter to receive the latest information from

ThinkHealth

Sign Up