What Is Medical Board Certification?

Why is it important for a healthcare provider to be board certified?

It's important to research your healthcare providers so you know the level of care they provide meets a certain standard. In your research, you will notice that many practitioners are "board-certified," but what does that mean?

Smiling physician and patient
sturti / Getty Images

Essentially, it tells you that the healthcare provider has met the requirements of a recognized medical board for certification. This is a step beyond obtaining a medical license and it's important that you understand its significance.

Are All Healthcare Providers Board-Certified?

A medical "board" is an organization that healthcare providers can join by meeting the requirements for membership. Whether that doctor is a specialist or a primary care physician, they may decide that demonstrating that level of competency will enhance her esteem and career standing among colleagues and patients. 

Most practicing healthcare providers in the U.S. are board-certified. While being board-certified guarantees a practitioner has met a minimum competency requirement, the same cannot be said for those who are not board-certified.

Non-certified medical professionals may be more or less competent. They may not be board-certified for any number of reasons. For instance, they may not have applied their certification credentials or they may have been turned down for membership. It's also possible that they have lost the credential for failing to continue meeting the minimum requirements.

The Criteria for Board Certification

Among medical doctors (MDs), the "gold standard" is a set of criteria developed by an association that many boards subscribe to called the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS). The criteria include aspects such as the number of years in school or fellowship programs, the area of practice, and any licensing and sub-specialty certifications.

Healthcare providers in practice more than a few years must also meet continuing education requirements. The requirements for each board will vary based on the specialty. A master list of the ABMS specialty and sub-specialty member boards is available at the ABMS website.

Osteopathic doctors (DOs) may be members of another well-respected group of numerous boards which are a part of the American Osteopathic Association. Osteopathic specialists must meet minimum requirements which are similar in scope to the requirements of the ABMS. Some osteopaths join ABMS boards in place of their corresponding AOA board.

A third organization of boards accepts both MDs and DOs into its member boards. The American Board of Physician Specialties is comprised of separate boards as well. It is a smaller organization, but its credentialing process is no less rigorous than the other two.

Not All Boards Are Created Equal

As mentioned above, the ABMS has created a set of minimum competencies they call the "gold standard." The AOA and ABPS have similar sets of standards. There are boards and certifications that do not subscribe to those competencies for various reasons, and they are not members of either organization.

Some of these specialties are quite new and are in the process of defining themselves. For example, the Board of Hospice and Palliative Medicine joined the ABMS in 2006 and its first exam for members was given in 2008. 

Other boards have a set of criteria that may or may not be equal to, but have decided not to join the ABMS or AOA. Examples are the American Board of Facial and Plastic Reconstructive Surgery (ABFPRS) and the American Board of Urgent Care Medicine (ABUCM).

You may see certificates on the wall of a healthcare provider's office, or you may find notations of certifications on a practitioner's resume or website. Don't confuse these with board certifications. In some cases, those certificates are earned by attending a weekend workshop, or by writing a big enough check in order to say he or she is "certified." This is not the same as board-certified.

The Difference Between Licensed and Board-Certified

Each state in the U.S. has a healthcare provider licensing system in place. In order to practice in that state, a healthcare provider must be licensed in that state. The requirements for licensure vary, but those requirements are not as stringent as those for certification boards.

Practitioners who are ABMS and AOA board-certified are all licensed. But medical professionals who are licensed are not necessarily members of an ABMS or AOA member board.

Wise patients understand the background and importance of board certification for medical specialties. Further, they research a potential healthcare provider's board certification to learn more about what competencies they can expect from that practitioner.

By Trisha Torrey
 Trisha Torrey is a patient empowerment and advocacy consultant. She has written several books about patient advocacy and how to best navigate the healthcare system.