Decoding commonly used terms at your doctor's office

Many people don't understand the initials following their doctor's name and how that acronym means a difference in education, training levels and to what extent they can provide care.

What do the initials after a doctor's name mean?

Here's a guide to help you interpret some commonly used credentials and terms used by the medical profession:

APP: Advanced Practice Provider is a general term that includes physician assistants (PAs) and nurse practitioners (NPs), among other health care professionals. They conduct physical exams, diagnose and treat illnesses, order and read tests, prescribe medication and counsel on preventive health care. They also perform office procedures and help coordinate your care with specialists when needed.

DO: A Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine focuses on the muscular and skeletal systems of the body while in medical school. DOs treat the whole body with an increased focus on wellness, and use that mindset when diagnosing and putting together a treatment plan.

MD: A Medical Doctor is the most common degree sought by doctors in the United States. Similar to DOs, MDs go through four years of undergraduate school followed by four years of graduate school for medicine. Many MDs specialize in a specific practice of medicine rather than pursuing primary care.

NP: Nurse Practitioners are typically in the primary care office. They are also called advanced practice registered nurses (APRN). Nurse Practitioners are qualified to order treatments for patients, prescribe medications, make referrals for a variety of conditions and other routine medical needs.

PA: A Physician Assistant practices medicine under the direction of a physician. PAs have routine appointments with patients and are able to complete a similar care role as a physician, such as diagnosing illnesses, developing treatment plans, prescribing medications and more.

Physician: A physician is a term that can be used interchangeably with doctor. Physicians have an MD or DO degree and must be board certified on the national level, and licensed in the state in which they practice.

Provider: The term provider is used when talking about any of the people above. They are providing direction of your health through assessments, diagnosis, prescriptions, and more.

Don't be afraid to ask the role of your provider at your next visit and what their credentials mean. This way you can get a better understanding of who is providing your care and whether they have the credentials and expertise that you're looking for.