The Difference between MD, DO, PA, RN and More, Explained

by Dr. S. George Kipa, M.D.

| 3 min read

When most people go to the doctor, they assume they’re going to see an MD, but that’s actually just one of the many kinds of medical professionals who can help you stay healthy. A team consisting of doctors (they take the lead in your care) and nurses, physician’s assistants and specialists all work together to keep you well and treat illnesses. But while the result is a team of caregivers, that can also lead to some confusion. With that in mind, here’s a very brief review of some of the medical professionals who might treat you in hospitals, clinics and doctors’ offices:
  • Medical Doctor (MD) and Doctor of Osteopathy (DO): These are the two main types of physicians who will lead your health care team. The main difference is whether the medical school was an MD school (the majority of them are) or a DO school. If your doctor has a DO degree, he or she has been educated with a holistic view of medicine and may have been trained to perform a form of spinal manipulation called osteopathic manipulative treatment. Both MDs and DOs have similar education requirements (four years of college, four years of medical school, a one-year internship and usually two years of residency) and can work as primary care physicians in general medicine and family medicine. An MD and DO can also become a specialist in an area like cardiology or gastroenterology by completing even more education (residency or fellowship) in that specific field. Physicians who choose surgical residencies go on to practice general surgery and can also do fellowships and further specialize in fields such as cardiac surgery or neurosurgery.
  • Physician Assistant (PA): A PA usually needs to complete a four-year college program and another two to three years of post-graduate education. PAs don’t go through formal internship or residency programs but usually have several years of experience in areas related to health care such as military paramedic or Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) experience. PAs perform many clinical tasks to assist physicians, such as ordering tests, helping in a surgery, diagnosing illnesses, prescribing medicine and more.
  • Registered Nurse (RN): A RN is a clinician with a nursing degree who has passed a licensing exam. RN roles have evolved considerably over time and now may include direct patient care in inpatient and outpatient settings and also administrative functions and quality assurance. They are often in charge of monitoring patients, taking vital signs, administering medications, documenting the patients’ history and more. They may also specialize in areas such as anesthesia and become a Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA).
  • Nurse Practitioner (NP): Also called Advanced Practice Nurses, NPs are RN’s with a masters or doctoral degree who have undergone advanced clinical training that enables them to practice (with physician backup) in primary care, acute care and long-term care environments.
  • Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN): LPNs (also called Licensed Vocation Nurses) aren’t required to have completed a four-year college. Instead, they train for one year at a community college or vocational school and get licensed by their state. They work under the direction of a registered nurse, licensed physician or dentist.
  • Medical Assistant: This profession requires a two-year associate’s degree. They assist physicians, often in outpatient or ambulatory care facilities, and are cross-trained to perform both clinical duties as well as administrative ones (like arranging hospital admissions and laboratory services and handling correspondence, bookkeeping and billing).
Head here to learn more about these categories and state regulations and licensing requirements. And check out these other posts for more insight into what goes on behind the scenes at the doctor’s office:
Photo credit: The All-Nite Images

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12 Comments

J
John Burien

Feb 26, 2022 at 9:21am

I think that Certified Nurses Assistance is important cause we get vital signs and report them to nurses and do alot of care on residents now a days especially in long term care settings cnas spend more time with residents rhen the nurses and doctors nurses spend alot of time at a computer of course they have their own set of resident care but also a boat load of more extra charting than what a cna does but a cna is part of the medical team that a patient recieves

M
Medicalbiller

Jul 21, 2020 at 4:32pm

This was very informative it helped me to understand some key aspects. As I deal with a website of medical laboratory billing services, We handle a website regarding this aspect in which we keep a track record of our content dating back to the previous year and make strategies to improve them. However, this article was much needed for our team and it will be something that I will be keen to review.

K
Kristen

Jul 13, 2020 at 5:36pm

NPs are advanced Practice RNs that have either a masters or doctorate in nursing (those with a doctorate have the title "doctor" without being physicians (much like psychologists and dentists)). Other types of Avanced Practice RNs are Nurse Anesthetists (CRNA), Nurse Midwives CNM), and Clinical Nurse Specialiats (CNS). PAs are currently working on offering doctoral degrees as well. NPs practice independently (without any physician backup) in 28 states in the US, and that number continues to increase An NP practices under his/her own license. NPs in any state can open their own practice without a physician as part of the practice. Those that need physician collaboration agreements need only have access to a physician by phone.

K
Kristen

Jul 13, 2020 at 5:21pm

NPs have either a masters or doctorate in nursing (those with a doctorate have the title "doctor" without being physicians (much like psychologists and dentists). NPs practice independently (without any physician backup in 28 states in the US, and that number continues to increase. PAs have to have physician backup in every state. An NP practices under his/her own license, a PA practices under a physician license. NPs in any state can open their own practice without a physician as part of the practice. Those that need physician collaboration agreements need only have access to a physician by phone.

M
Merilee

Feb 10, 2020 at 2:46pm

What is PR before a doctors name?

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