What's an MD, DO, NP, PA and MA?

The initials floating behind your healthcare provider's name can be confusing. Here are some insights on what the letters mean:

 

MDs: Medical doctors

Medical doctors practice the classical form of medicine called allopathic medicine. Making up 90% of today's practicing physicians, MDs diagnose and treat disease. They practice independently.

Training:

  • Four-year college degree
  • Four years of medical school
  • Three to seven years of residency training, depending on the specialty
  • Fellowship training for one or more years in some specialties

What an MD does:

  • Diagnoses and manages acute and chronic illnesses
  • Orders, performs and interprets diagnostic tests, such as lab work and X-rays
  • Refers to other specialists and healthcare providers as needed
  • Prescribes medications and other treatments
  • Manages a patient's care
  • Performs operations (surgeons)

DOs: Doctors of osteopathic medicine

DOs practice osteopathic medicine, which is more holistic. The focus is on seeing the patient as a whole person instead of treating just the symptoms. They practice independently.

DOs also receive training in osteopathic manipulative treatment — moving a patient's muscles and joints with stretching, gentle pressure and resistance — to diagnose, treat and prevent illness. DOs make up 10% of practicing physicians in the U.S. today.

Training:

  • Four-year college degree
  • Four years of medical school
  • Internship, residency and fellowship lasting three to eight years
  • Special training in the body's musculoskeletal system

Included in DO education is special training in the body's musculoskeletal system of muscles, nerves and bones.

Medical licenses are governed at the state level by state boards of medicine. In addition, there are 24 medical specialty boards that certify physicians in specialties and subspecialties.

To become board-certified, a physician needs to spend several years after medical school receiving supervised in-practice training followed by written and sometimes oral exams.

What a DO does:

  • Diagnoses and manages acute and chronic illnesses
  • Orders, performs and interprets diagnostic tests such as lab work and X-rays
  • Refers to other specialists and healthcare providers as needed
  • Prescribes medications and other treatments
  • Manages a patient's care
  • Performs operations (surgeons)
  • Conducts manipulative treatment of muscles and joints

NPs: Nurse practitioners

Nurse practitioners practice in primary, acute and specialty healthcare services. They treat the whole person and guide each patient to make smart health and lifestyle choices. NPs practice independently.

Training:

  • Bachelor's and master’s degrees in nursing
  • Most graduate programs require more than five years of experience in the medical field before a candidate can apply
  • PhD and/or doctorate in nursing (DNP) degree for some nurse practitioners

What an NP does:

  • Diagnoses and manages acute and chronic illnesses
  • Orders, performs and interprets diagnostic tests such as lab work and X-rays
  • Refers to specialists or other healthcare providers as needed
  • Prescribes medications and other treatments
  • Manages a patient's care
  • Focuses on health promotion, disease prevention and health education and counseling
  • Practices under the rules and regulations of the state in which they're licensed and are nationally certified in the specialty areas

NPs do not need physician supervision to make clinical decisions.


PAs: Physician assistants

The first PAs started training in 1967 at Duke University in North Carolina as part of a program that helped Vietnam vets who had served as medics.

PAs work in primary and specialty care under the direction and supervision of a licensed physician.

Training:

  • A master's degree usually is required to be considered for a PA program although most programs require applicants to have work experience as an EMT, paramedic, medical assistant or ER technician.
    • Prior healthcare experience is not always required.
  • PA programs typically include at least 2,000 hours of clinical rotations

What a PA does:

  • Diagnoses and treats common illnesses and injuries
  • Performs certain procedures and minor surgeries
  • Prescribes a limited number of prescriptions
  • Orders and interprets diagnostic and lab tests (analyzes results with physicians)
  • Offers guidance about health and nutrition
  • Tracks medical histories and symptoms
  • Treats minor injuries or sicknesses
  • Refers patients to a specialist and other healthcare providers

Licensing and certification: Although laws vary by state, all PAs need to complete an accredited education program and pass a national exam.


MA: Medical assistants

A medical assistant performs both clinical and administrative jobs at doctors' offices, urgent cares and clinics.

Clinical duties may include:

  • Taking a patient's medical history
  • Explaining treatments to patients
  • Preparing a patient for examination
  • Helping the physician during exams
  • Collecting and preparing lab specimens
  • Performing basic lab tests
  • Preparing and administering medications as directed by a physician
  • Teaching patients about medications and special diets
  • Drawing blood
  • Doing electrocardiograms
  • Removing sutures and changing dressings
  • Transmitting prescription refills as directed

Administrative duties may include:

  • Updating patient medical records
  • Coding and filling out insurance forms
  • Using computer applications
  • Answering telephones
  • Scheduling appointments
  • Arranging for hospital admissions and lab services
  • Handling correspondence, billing and bookkeeping

Many employers prefer that medical assistants be certified by the American Association of Medical Assistants.

Find a doctor

Schedule an appointment with a primary care provider at HonorHealth.

Schedule online