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Decoding the 'Alphabet Soup' of Medical Degrees


A primer on common abbreviations found on medical provider name tags.

We’ve all seen the letters “MD” (doctor of medicine) or “RN” (registered nurse) on name tags at the hospital. But MD isn’t the only acronym you’ll find after a provider’s name. We break down a few of the most common ones you may encounter. 

  • DO: This degree translates to “doctor of osteopathic medicine.” These doctors attend a four-year osteopathic school of medicine instead of a traditional medical school, which is where a majority of physicians get their training. A DO completes a residency program (a three- to seven-year period of training) and must pass a licensing exam, which can differ from the MD licensing exam, in order to practice medicine.
  • MBBCh & MBBS: These are MD-equivalent degrees given by medical schools that follow the United Kingdom medical education system. Both acronyms are derived from Latin and mean “bachelor of medicine, bachelor of surgery.” 
  • MD: This is the designation for medical doctor, which is earned by obtaining a bachelor’s degree (which takes four years) and then graduating from medical school, which also takes four years. Doctors go on to complete a residency (which takes three to seven years) and must pass a national licensing exam. 
  • MPH: Although this can be a standalone degreesome doctors acquire a “master of public health” degree (which takes about two years to complete) in addition to their medical degree to help them understand how public health policy affects patients and their communities. 
  • PhD: Doctor of philosophy. This the highest degree awarded by a graduate school in a field of academic study and takes about four to six years to obtain. Many psychologists who work with patients or conduct research obtain a PhD. Some physicians choose to earn a PhD in a particular subject that may be related to medicine. 
  • PA: Physician assistants/associates are licensed clinicians who practice medicine across all specialties and settings. They are educated at a master’s degree level (after obtaining a bachelor’s degree), which includes completing a three-year PA educational program. Most state laws require PAs to be supervised by a specific physician to practice medicine. While it can vary depending on their specialty and state laws, PAs can diagnose and treat illnesses, prescribe medications, assist in surgery, and fulfill many other medical duties. 
  • RN: A registered nurse is a medical professional who has completed either an associate’s (which takes two years) or a bachelor’s degree in nursing, clinical nursing requirements, and has passed a national licensing exam.
  • APRN: Advanced practice registered nurses obtain at least a master’s degree in nursing and often further specialize in one of four different areas: clinical nurse specialist (CNS), nurse anesthetist, nurse practitioner (NP), or certified nurse-midwife (CNM). More on two of these:
    • NPs are licensed at the state level and are certified through national organizations. Some states require NPs to have a doctorate degree. They can serve as a primary care provider in family medicine (FNP), pediatrics (PNP), adult care (ANP), or geriatrics (GNP). They provide a range of services including diagnosing and treating illness, writing prescriptions, and performing certain procedures. In some states, NPs can practice independently; others require NPs to work with an MD in order to prescribe medications or to get licensed.
    • CNMs provide a range of health services for women (from primary care to delivering babies) with a holistic, natural approach. They have a master’s or doctorate degree in midwifery, in addition to passing the registered nursing and CNM exams.