A medical "board" is an organization that doctors become a part of by meeting the requirements for membership. Whether that doctor is a specialist, or is a primary care physician, the doctor may decide that demonstrating that level of competency will enhance her esteem among colleagues and patients. It will improve her career standing as well.
Approximately 90% of all practicing physicians in the U.S. are board-certified. While being board-certified guarantees a doctor has met a minimum competency requirement, the same cannot be said for those who are not board-certified. Non-certified doctors may be more or less competent. They may not be board-certified because they have not made application for their certification credential, because they have been turned down for membership, or because they have lost the credential for failing to continue meeting the minimum requirements.
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). Included in those criteria are aspects such as the number of years of schooling, fellowship programs, area of practice, licensing and sub-specialty certifications. Doctors in practice more than a few years must also meet continuing education requirements. The requirements for each board will vary based on what the specialty is.
A master list of the 24 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 18 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 19 separate boards. It is a smaller organization of boards, 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 potential boards will join the ABMS in the future.
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).
Further, there are boards that certify practitioners for alternative and complementary practices. Among these boards are the American Board of Chelation Therapy (also known as the American Board of Clinical Metal Toxicology), and the American Board of Holistic Medicine. While both of these organizations require potential members to have earned an MD or DO, their other requirements are not as strict as those for other boards.
You may see certificates on the wall of a doctor's office, or you may find notations of certifications on a doctor'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.
If you find the doctor you are researching is not a member of a board that is a member of the ABMS or the AOA, you'll want to find the website of that specific board, and review its credentialing requirements yourself.
The Difference Between Licensed and Board-Certified
Each state in the U.S. has a physician licensing system in place, and in order to practice in that state, a doctor must be licensed in that state. The requirements for licensure vary, but those requirements are not as stringent as those for certification boards. Doctors who are ABMS and AOA board-certified are all licensed. But doctors 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 doctor's board certification to learn more about what competencies they can expect from that practitioner.