So, What Does Physician Board Certification Actually Mean?

February 7, 2019 |

Last time you chose a new doctor, what did you look for? Chances are you read patient reviews or got a referral from a friend or coworker to make sure the doctor had a good reputation. Maybe you also wanted someone close to home. At the very least, you probably made sure they had “MD” or “DO” behind their name, and were a specialist in the area you needed: pediatrician, psychiatrist, or cosmetic surgeon, for example.

If your doctor was also listed as “board certified,” you probably thought “great, that sounds important.” And you’re right—physician board certification is an important credential. However, if you’re unsure exactly what board certification means for you as a patient, you’re not alone.

Physician certifying boards are private, not-for-profit organizations that test and certify doctors who meet their requirements for training, experience, and professionalism in their specialty.

As the only board in the U.S. who certifies physicians exclusively in cosmetic surgery, we thought we’d take some time to answer common questions about board certification.

What is board certification?

Board certification is an added credential that a doctor can achieve to demonstrate they have achieved a high level of expertise in a specific area of medicine: orthopedic surgery, pediatrics, OBGYN, cosmetic surgery, etc. Board certification is optional, and doctors can choose from different boards for their specialty certification.

Ultimately, board certification is a symbol that a doctor has undergone additional training in their area of specialty, proven a high level of expertise in that specialty, and are therefore better qualified to practice in that specialty compared to a non-certified doctor.

Medical licensure is not the same thing as board certification. It is legally required for a doctor to obtain a valid state medical license to practice medicine in the U.S., while board certification is optional.

While board certification details vary from board to board, requirements typically include:

  • Having graduated from medical school
  • Having completed a postgraduate residency training program—typically 5 to 6 years providing patient care under attending MD supervision and building experience in a medical or surgical specialty
  • Have a valid state medical license
  • Documenting a certain number of patient cases in their specialty to prove experience
  • Clearing background checks
  • Passing written and oral board examinations

Many boards, including the American Board of Cosmetic Surgery (ABCS), also require doctors to complete additional fellowship training, during which they train full-time in their specialty for another year or longer to gain necessary experience.

Who oversees board certification?

There’s a common misconception that physician board certification is overseen by a government agency, such as the Department of Health & Human Services or the FDA. However, all board certifications in the United States are granted by privately-run organizations.

There are dozens of certifying boards for different medical specialties and subspecialties: the American Board of Cosmetic Surgery, the American Board of Pain Medicine, the American Board of Psychiatry, the American Board of Integrative Medicine, the list goes on. These boards are private, not-for-profit organizations that establish requirements for training, experience, and professionalism in a specialty, and conduct examinations to certify doctors who meet their requirements.

This is where things can get a little confusing: some certifying boards are part of larger organizations, which also call themselves a “board.” These include the American Board of Medical Specialties and the American Board of Physician Specialties. These “parent” boards do not certify physicians directly but provide provide financial, organizational, and marketing support to their member boards, similar to how state university systems provide financial, structural, and marketing support to individual colleges and universities. Other boards, such as the American Board of Cosmetic Surgery, are independent and not under the auspices of a parent board.

Medical licensure vs. board certification

Medical licensure is not the same thing as board certification. It is legally required for a doctor to obtain a valid state medical license to practice medicine in the U.S., while board certification is optional. Other key differences include:

  • Medical licenses are issued by a state medical board, board certification is granted by a private organization.
  • A medical license does not reflect a physician’s specialty training; board certification indicates that a doctor has had specific training and experience in a particular specialty
  • State medical licensing boards can discipline or revoke licenses of physicians due to malpractice, abuse, inadequate recordkeeping, or other issues of unprofessional conduct. Specialty boards hold physicians to certain professional standards to maintain certification, but they cannot revoke or suspend a physician’s license.

As a patient, you absolutely want to be sure any physician you choose has a valid, unrestricted medical license in the state where they are practicing as a bare minimum. If they do not, that doctor is practicing illegally and your safety could be in jeopardy. You can check the licensure status of a doctor by searching your state’s medical board database. This directory is a good place to start.

Do I need to choose a board certified doctor?

It would be easy to answer this with a blanketed yes—but what’s really important is choosing a doctor who is board certified in the specialty that they are practicing for you.

For instance, if you need knee surgery, a doctor who is board certified in internal medicine may have no more training or experience in knee surgery than an uncertified doctor! In this case, you would want a physician who is board certified in orthopedic surgery.

Board certification is important—but what’s really important is choosing a doctor who is board certified in the right specialty for you.

The same goes for cosmetic surgery. A lot of doctors who are board certified in other areas perform cosmetic surgery—remember, this is perfectly legal, but board certification in another area, such as general surgery or dermatology, doesn’t mean a doctor has adequate training in cosmetic surgery. Choosing a surgeon who is board certified by the American Board of Cosmetic Surgery ensures your cosmetic surgeon has undergone comprehensive, formal training in cosmetic surgery.

What else do I need to look for in a doctor?

While board certification is an important credential, it’s just one factor to focus on when searching for a qualified, reputable doctor. Other things to look at as you research your options:

  • Read patient reviews for that doctor, and look for mostly positive ratings and reviews.
  • Talk to real patients of that doctor if possible.
  • If you’re having surgery, make sure your procedure will be performed in an accredited surgical facility.
  • When you consult with a doctor, ask how many times they have performed the procedure you plan on having.
  • For cosmetic procedures, look at patient before & after photos, with particular focus on patients that are similar to you before surgery.

For a more complete list of what to look for in a surgeon, download our surgeon consultation checklist. While it’s designed for cosmetic surgery patients, many of the points are important when choosing other types of doctors too.

Have more questions about board certification? We will be happy to help.

We hope you now have a better idea of what board certification means, but if you have more questions, feel free to contact us. To find a board certified cosmetic surgeon in your area, please visit our ABCS surgeon directory.