What Does ‘Board-Certified’ Mean? Clarifying This Physician Credential


Whenever you’re choosing a new doctor, there are a handful of things you know you should investigate. You probably consider their geographic location, compatibility with your insurance plan, and experience. You might also want to look into whether the physician in question is board-certified.

Like many people, you’ve probably heard mention of certification before. But you may not know much about it. What does “board-certified” mean, exactly? And does it really matter if your doctor has obtained this credential?

Before you can determine how much you value board certification, you should probably become a little more familiar with the credential and everything physicians go through to obtain it. It’s a thorough process that involves a lot of education. Get ready for a quick lesson in board certification.

What does “board-certified” mean?

There’s no doubt any practicing physician has gone through a rigorous education and training process. Doctors who are board-certified have chosen to go even further by obtaining additional education in a given specialty and demonstrating their knowledge.

“Board certification signifies the highest level of accreditation within a given specialty,” explains Dr. Mark Beaty, double board-certified Facial Plastic Surgeon. He adds that it indicates the physician is highly trained and has knowledge and clinical skills reviewed by peers in the specialty.

"Board certification signifies the highest level of accreditation within a given specialty."

The American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS) is the most well-known organization that sets physician certification standards. It encompasses 24 specialty boards, some of which grant certification in subspecialties. The American Board of Dermatology, for example, has also established certification in pediatric dermatology and dermatopathology.

There are two other main certification boards, the American Osteopathic Association and the American Board of Physician Specialties, as well as numerous other self-designated boards that don’t report to a central organization. Some physicians choose to obtain multiple certifications.

Unlike obtaining a medical license, becoming board-certified is not mandatory to begin a career in medicine. It’s an optional extra step.

How do doctors become board-certified?

Most doctors begin the board certification process during or soon after residency. Remember, physicians at this point have already undergone a significant amount of education and training. Dr. Alfonso Barrera, Plastic Surgeon who is certified by both by the American Board of Plastic Surgery and the American Board of Otolaryngology, outlines the process.

“Once the physician has completed medical school and the required number of years of accredited medical or surgical postgraduate training, he or she must take written and oral examinations to verify knowledge and competency,” Dr. Barrera explains. “Then, he or she is board certified.”

“Then, he or she is board certified.”

The specific certification process will vary depending on the board in question. Those seeking certification from an ABMS member board all follow a similar process. In addition to obtaining a medical degree and completing postgraduate training, physicians must also provide assessment letters from their residency program and secure an unrestricted medical license before they can sit the certification exam. Those who wish to further subspecialize must complete even more training during or after residency and pass additional assessments.

Even after a physician has become board-certified, the work isn’t necessarily over. Many, but not all, boards require physicians to recertify throughout their careers. The ABMS has a specific program for this called Maintenance of Certification (MOC).

“The intention is a system of ongoing professional development and practice assessment and improvement,” Dr. Barrera explains.

Is board certification important?

Whether board certification truly matters depends on whom you ask. Some argue it’s merely an extra hoop physicians must jump through to satisfy demand from patients. Research comparing physicians who are board-certified with those who are not has been relatively inconclusive, because studies vary widely in their methodology and the variables measured. Critics also suggest recertification detracts from patient care, which should be top priority.

But many physicians recognize there’s value. “Board certification confers extra confidence that your physician is well-qualified,” Dr. Beaty offers.

"Board certification confers extra confidence that your physician is well-qualified."

Dr. Barrera also notes board certification and MOC are usually seen as important benchmarks for numerous other parties.

“Patients, physicians, health care providers, insurers, and quality organizations look for these markers as the best measure of a physician’s knowledge, experience, and skills to provide quality health care within a given specialty,” he says.

How can you find the right physician for you?

Whether you always choose board-certified doctors is ultimately up to you, but you can see there are certainly some reasons to consider it. If you do decide to go this route, there are online tools available to help you verify your provider’s status. Certification Matters is a popular option, but note that it only covers ABMS member boards. You can also call your physician’s office to inquire.

It’s also important to keep in mind that recertification is an ongoing requirement that not everyone maintains. So what should you do if you discover provider’s certification has lapsed? Don’t panic. Instead, start a conversation with your doctor.

“There is significant variation in requirements for recertification,” Dr. Beaty explains. “If your physician's certification has lapsed, I would recommend talking with them about the reasons why.”

“If your physician's certification has lapsed, I would recommend talking with them about the reasons why.”

Lastly, don’t forget to take a holistic look at what a provider has to offer. Board certification may be an important criterion for you, but it shouldn’t be the only thing you consider. Dr. Barrera says word-of-mouth recommendations can be incredibly useful.

He recommends asking yourself, “Do you know other patients who have been treated by him or her? How pleased were they? How successful was the doctor in their care?” For some, this sort of information could carry as much weight as board-certification status.

MDs setting the bar

So, what does “board-certified” mean? It’s clearly much more than just a resume-boosting credential. Many physicians who maintain certification do so to demonstrate they’re committed to upholding the highest patient-care standards and continuing their education.

Given how rapidly health care is advancing, it makes sense that doctors need to stay up to date on new techniques and tools. And there are more changes on the horizon. While some individuals worry technology may eventually replace physicians, this isn’t likely. Doctors are already proving themselves more than capable of adapting.

Learn more about how the future of medicine is shaping up by reading our article, “Health Care Technology: How Medical Providers Are Embracing Tech.”

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