What makes a doctor a doctor?

This question was asked in the fall of 2018 after Christine Blasey Ford, Ph.D., testified during a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee. When covering the hearing, some news outlets did not refer to Christine Blasey Ford as Dr. Ford because she holds a doctoral degree in educational psychology and is not a doctor who practices in a medical capacity.

There are many types of doctors—boards within the California Department of Consumer Affairs regulate most of them—but they are not alike. Some professionals even have multiple degrees that span the health care spectrum.  What they all do have in common, is that they have studied well beyond a typical 4-year college baccalaureate degree.

In the United States there are two types of practicing physicians—allopathic and osteopathic.

Allopathic physicians and surgeons are medical doctors (MDs) who practice a form of medical treatment—also referred to as conventional or Western medicine—which focuses on the treatment of symptoms and disease. These professionals use existing medical knowledge through prescribing medication, radiation, or surgery. They are licensed and regulated by the Medical Board of California.

Osteopathic physicians and surgeons (DOs) practice a form of medical treatment that stresses the importance of the physician and patient working together in an empathetic partnership to treat symptoms and disease through utilizing medical knowledge and osteopathic manipulative treatment (OMT).  OMT can be used to complement or replace drugs or surgery.  In OMT, osteopathic physicians use their hands to diagnose and treat illness or injury of the musculoskeletal system—the body’s interconnected system of nerves, muscles, joints, and bones. They are licensed and regulated by the Osteopathic Medical Board of California.

MDs and DOs are similar in that they attended medical school and received postgraduate training in diagnosing and treating illnesses and disorders to promote healing and provide preventative care to any part of the human body.  Both types of physicians can prescribe medication, perform surgery, and practice in a variety of specialty areas focusing on any part of the human body from head-to-toe and all parts in between.

Beyond MDs and DOs, there are many other types of doctors that specialize in treating other parts of the bodies of humans (and nonhumans) using Western and non-Western medicine techniques:

Doctor of chiropractic (DC) are practitioners and like DOs, they use their hands to diagnose and treat patients, but they received their postgraduate training at a chiropractic college. Chiropractic is an alternative practice which focuses on the relationship between the nervous system, spine, and body’s structure and function. It is most often used to treat neuromusculoskeletal conditions, such as problems with nerves, muscles, joints, bones, and/or connective tissues such as cartilage, ligaments, and tendons.  DCs do not prescribe medication because their approach to wellness is prevention-based and focuses on diet, exercise, and lifestyle, with an emphasis on utilizing natural methods. They are licensed and regulated by the Board of Chiropractic Examiners.

Doctor of dental surgery (DDS) or Doctor of dental medicine (DMD) are the same degree; which degree is awarded depends on the dental school. The field of dentistry does not solely pertain to teeth.  General dentists help patients maintain their oral health through the study, diagnosis, prevention and treatment of diseases and conditions of the oral cavity, soft tissues and other aspects of the face and jaws, including the supporting muscular lymphatic, nervous and vascular structures.  Dentists may prescribe medication and additional post-graduate training is required to become a dental specialist or an oral and maxillofacial surgeon. They are licensed and regulated by the Dental Board of California.

California licensed acupuncturists (LAc) may have received master’s or doctorate level post-graduate training, e.g., doctor of acupuncture and oriental medicine (DAOM). What they have in common is that to practice acupuncture in this state, they must become a California licensed acupuncturist. These professionals practice a form of medicine that stimulates the nervous system to prevent or modify the perception of pain or to normalize physiological functions. This holistic approach supports the body’s natural healing process by using a specific point (or points) at or near the surface of the body through the insertion of acupuncture needles.  Electroacupuncture, cupping, massage, and moxibustion are additional techniques acupuncturists utilize to promote wellness. Licensed acupuncturists in California may treat animals under the direct supervision of a veterinary doctor (DVM). The degree types earned by professionals licensed through the California Acupuncture Board are many. Presently, the California Acupuncture Board is exploring and working with the profession, accrediting agencies, and stakeholders to establish a standard in the state. They are licensed and regulated by the California Acupuncture Board.

Naturopathic doctors (ND) receive medical training like MDs and DOs, yet they take a different approach with patients in that they emphasize prevention by eliminating obstacles to health through maintaining a state of wellness by stimulating and promoting the body’s healing ability through holistic methods.  When faced with treating disease, the ND stresses the importance of identifying the root cause of the disease in the body versus suppressing the symptoms with medication.  In California, NDs can prescribe medication but their ability to do so is limited. They are licensed and regulated by the Naturopathic Medicine Committee.

Doctors of optometry (OD) are eye care professionals called optometrists that conduct comprehensive eye examinations to determine the overall heath of the eye, abnormalities, and the diagnosis of visual changes. Optometrists treat and manage visual changes through prescribing medication for some eye diseases or by prescribing and dispensing corrective optical or contact lenses.  Optometrists do not perform eye surgery. Surgical care of the eyes and visual system are performed by a medical or osteopathic physician called an Ophthalmologist. Optometrists are licensed and regulated by the California State Board of Optometry. Note: Ophthalmologists are licensed and regulated through the Medical Board of California.

A doctor of podiatric medicine (DPM) is a physician or surgeon trained to diagnose and treat ailments affecting the lower extremities of the body such as the foot, ankle, and related structures of the legs. Although DPMs have received specialized medical and surgical training, they do not have the title of medical doctor. They are licensed and regulated by the State of California Board of Podiatric Medicine.

Doctor of veterinary medicine (DVM) referred to as a veterinarian, or “vet,” treats multiple species of animals including domestic pets, livestock, zoo, and laboratory animals by diagnosing illnesses and performing medical procedures. Additionally, because we receive most of our food from animals, there are research veterinarians who specialize in food and safety inspection, which involves the examination of livestock for illness that can be transmitted to humans. They are licensed and regulated by the Veterinary Medical Board.

The California Department of Consumer Affairs is honored to oversee the boards that license and regulate the doctors and physicians who work hard every day to keep Californians healthy.  You can check the license of medical professionals and find one near you by using DCA’s license search.

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