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JAMA Patient Page
December 5, 2012

Health Care Professionals and Qualifications

JAMA. 2012;308(21):2296. doi:10.1001/jama.2012.4096

There are many types of health care professionals. Traditional roles and responsibilities held by physicians and nurses have changed, along with the expansion of technology and the demand for health care services. The education, certifications, and licensures for types of health care practitioners differ, as does their scope of practice (what they are allowed by law to do for patients). The December 5, 2012, issue of JAMA is a theme issue on medical education.


Physicians hold a medical degree (MD, doctor of medicine, or DO, doctor of osteopathy) after graduating from an accredited medical school. An internship is a 1-year training program after medical school and is the minimum required for licensure as a physician. Most physicians complete a residency, often in a specialty, which involves several more years of training and education after medical school. There are strict requirements for licensure; in the United States, a physician must be licensed by each state in which he or she wishes to practice.

Physician assistants

Physician assistants (PAs) have a master's degree from accredited PA programs, which are often a part of medical schools. Physician assistants are not physicians, but they work together with their supervising physician. Physician assistants obtain medical histories, perform physical examinations, provide preventive health care, and treat medical problems under the guidance of their supervising physician. Some PAs have additional education and training in a specialty; they may also assist as part of a surgical team. As part of their practice with their supervising physician, licensed PAs may prescribe medications.

Advanced practice nurses

Advanced practice nurses (APNs) have received additional education, often at least a master's degree, beyond the courses required for a registered nurse (RN). Advanced practice nurses work in many settings, such as hospitals, clinics, and offices. They may be involved in primary care, preventive care, or research. They may specialize in an area such as cancer care, pediatrics, or geriatrics. Types of APNs include clinical nurse specialists, nurse practitioners, certified nurse midwives (CNMs), and certified registered nurse anesthetists (CRNAs).

Dentists and oral-maxillofacial surgeons

Dentists must graduate from accredited dental schools and be licensed to practice in their state. Their degrees are doctor of dental surgery (DDS) and doctor of dental medicine (DMD). Oral-maxillofacial surgeons are dentists with advanced education in disorders of and surgery on the mouth, face, and jaw.

Other health care professionals

  • Optometrists

  • Psychologists

  • Podiatrists

  • Pharmacists

  • Physical therapists

  • Chiropractors

  • Paramedics

Take responsibility

  • It is important to understand that many persons will be involved in your health care, in hospitals and in an office or outpatient setting.

  • Most health care institutions require their caregivers to wear identification badges showing their name and their degree. Several states have laws requiring visible ID for health care practitioners.

  • When searching for any type of health care, make sure you understand who is going to look after you. Ask your health care professional about his or her qualifications and training.

  • Practicing medicine without a license or pretending to be a physician is illegal in the United States.

For more information

Inform yourself

To find this and previous JAMA Patient Pages, go to the Patient Page Index on JAMA 's website at www.jama.com. Many are available in English and Spanish.

Sources: American Medical Association, American Association of Colleges of Nursing, American Academy of Physician Assistants, American Dental Association

The JAMA Patient Page is a public service of JAMA. The information and recommendations appearing on this page are appropriate in most instances, but they are not a substitute for medical diagnosis. For specific information concerning your personal medical condition, JAMA suggests that you consult your physician. This page may be photocopied noncommercially by physicians and other health care professionals to share with patients. To purchase bulk reprints, call 312/464-0776.