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Getting to Know Your Healthcare Providers

Most of us are familiar with MD after a doctor's name. This stands for doctor of medicine and signifies that this person has completed 4 years of medical school. But do you know if your doctor is a DO? And what about the other people checking vitals, writing prescriptions, and filling in charts—PAs and NPs—what type of training do they have and what services can they offer?

MDs and DOs

A DO is a doctor of osteopathic medicine. MDs and DOs are similar in many ways. Here are some requirements that both MDs and DOs must complete:

There are also some distinctions between these types of doctors. For example, DOs:

Physician Assistants

A physician assistant (PA) is a health professional who is licensed to practice medicine under the supervision of a physician. Some of the duties that a PA can do include:

A PA can work in any area of medicine, but the majority work in primary care medicine, such as pediatrics, family practice, obstetrics/gynecology, and internal medicine.

To become a PA, a person must complete an accredited PA educational program and pass a national certification exam. The typical PA program takes about 2 years. The majority of students have a bachelor's degree and experience in the healthcare field before admission to the program. Education consists of classroom and laboratory instruction in the basic medical and behavioral sciences, as well as clinical rotations in different medical fields. When certified, PAs take continuing medical education classes and are regularly retested on their skills.

Nurse Practitioners

A nurse practitioner (NP) is a registered nurse (RN) with a master's or doctoral degree with advanced clinical training in a healthcare specialty area. The services a NP can provide vary depending on each state's regulations. In general, NPs can:

Nurse practitioners can work in primary care or specialty areas of medicine, such as emergency medicine, oncology, and psychiatry.

The path to becoming a NP usually begins with nursing school, followed by licensure. After a few years of work experience, they can apply to a master's or doctoral degree program in nursing, which generally consists of 1-2 years of school and a supervised internship. Most NPs are nationally certified in their specialty area.

Knowing When to Say When

While PAs and NPs can do many of a doctor's functions, an essential part of their training is knowing when to defer to a doctor. Exactly what a PA or NP can handle and what they pass onto the doctor varies greatly with training, experience, state law, and the supervising doctor's practice. Generally, a doctor handles patients with medical issues that are outside of the range of the assistant or nurse.


American Academy of Nurse Practitioners

American Academy of Physician Assistants


Health Canada

Public Health Agency of Canada


About DOs. American Osteopathic Association website. Available at: http://www.osteopathic.org/osteopathic-health/about-dos/Pages/default.aspx. Accessed July 7, 2015.

Physician assistants. Bureau of Labor Statistics website. Available at: http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/physician-assistants.htm. Updated January 8, 2014. Accessed July 7, 2015.

What is a PA? American Academy of Physician Assistants website. Available at: https://www.aapa.org/What-is-a-PA/. Accessed July 7, 2015.

What's an NP? American Academy of Nurse Practitioners website. Available at: http://www.aanp.org/all-about-nps/what-is-an-np. Accessed July 7, 2015.

Last reviewed June 2015 by Michael Woods, MD  Last Updated: 9/16/2013