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MD, DO, PA, NP, MA and More: What Do These Letters Mean?

Learning your ABCs was as easy as 1-2-3, but when it comes to understanding medical titles, you may be met with an alphabet soup. That’s because these days your care may be led by a variety of health care providers or clinical care teams who have different letters behind their names.

You probably know that an MD is a medical doctor. But a DO, doctor of osteopathic medicine, is also a medical doctor who undergoes similar rigorous education and training. Then you add in other members of a medical team, such as a PA, NP, MA and more, and it can get a bit confusing.

With that in mind, here’s a breakdown of some of the medical professionals who might treat you in hospitals, clinics and doctors’ offices. This will help you make sense of “the soup” and know who’s who and who does what.

The who’s who of medical care

MDs and DOs

Most primary care teams are led by an MD (medical doctor) or a DO (doctor of osteopathic medicine).

A medical doctor with an MD designation attends an allopathic medical school (traditional) accredited by the Liaison Committee on Medical Education.

A DO is granted to physicians who graduate from an osteopathic medical school accredited by the Commission on Osteopathic College Accreditation.

What do a MD and DO have in common?

Both MDs and DOs undergo the most extensive training of any health care professional. They both complete lengthy education—typically including a four-year undergraduate degree, four years of medical school or college of osteopathic medicine and three to seven years of residency training after receiving their medical degrees. Some will go on to do fellowships to learn more about a specialty, such as interventional cardiology or internal medicine.

They both must obtain medical licenses in the states where they practice and participate in ongoing medical education. Many also seek board certifications in certain specialties and complete recertifications as required.

When it comes to patient care, an MD and DO both can:

  • Diagnose and treat acute and chronic illnesses
  • Order, perform and interpret diagnostic tests
  • Refer patients to other health care specialists
  • Prescribe medication and other treatments

How does a DO differ from a MD?

While both have the same amount of education and can diagnose and treat patients, they differ in their approach to medicine.

An MD focuses on the diagnosis and treatment of human diseases, observing symptoms and treating them directly. They tend to take a more targeted approach to treatment.

A DO takes a more holistic approach, or a whole-body approach, to diagnosis and treatment, considering the entire body system, nutrition and everyday environment. A DO must also take additional hours of training in the skill of osteopathic manipulative medicine (OMT). DOs learn how the bones, nerves and muscles work together and influence health. Using OMT, a DO can treat muscles and joints to relieve pain, promote healing and increase mobility.

NP – Nurse Practitioner

A NP, one of four advanced practice nursing specialties, is a registered nurse who has completed a Master of Science or doctoral degree (DNP) and advanced clinical training. They must then receive national certification in one of several specialties, such as acute care, pediatrics or women’s health.

NPs follow the nursing model that focuses heavily on the impact of the diagnosis and treatment on the patient. An NP can help diagnose and treat patients with routine and complex medical conditions, prescribe medications, educate patients about healthy lifestyle choices and serve as a patient’s main health care provider. In some states, however, NPs work under the supervision of a physician to prescribe medication.

PA – Physician Assistant

A PA is a nationally certified, state licensed provider who is trained to work as part of a team with physicians. Most PAs complete a four-year college program and another two to three years of postgraduate education.

PAs follow the medical model, which places greater emphasis on disease, anatomy and the physiology of the human body. They have extensive medical training to diagnose illness, develop and manage treatment plans, prescribe medications, perform procedures and serve as a patient’s primary health care provider. PAs often collaborate with physicians.

The value of PAs and NPs in primary care practices

PAs and NPs are often able to see patients for routine exams and illnesses sooner than physicians, which allows patients to access care sooner. However, they always consult with the caring physician regarding patient care, including the treatment plan and any concerns that may require follow-up. They can consult with the physician immediately if there is a question or bring the physician in to see the patient, if necessary.

What do other initials in health care mean?

Here’s a rundown of a few other initials who you might find caring for you.

  • DPM (doctor of podiatric medicine): A DPM, also known as a podiatrist, can be both a surgeon and a physician at the same time and specializes in the foot, ankle and structure of the leg. They are the most qualified when it comes to treating lower extremity disorders, diseases and injuries. Oddly enough, they are neither an MD nor a DO, but podiatrists do undergo rigorous training. They complete four years of podiatric medical school and at least two years of postgraduate residency training.
  • RN (registered nurse): An RN is a medical professional with a four-year nursing degree who has passed a licensing exam. RNs can provide direct patient care in inpatient and outpatient settings and are often in charge of monitoring patients, taking vital signs, administering medications and documenting patient history. They may also specialize in areas such as anesthesia and become a certified nurse anesthetist (CRNA).
  • LPN (licensed practical nurse) and LVN (licensed vocational nurse): An LPN and LVN will have about a year of nursing education and will perform less technical skills, like taking vitals and observing patients. You’ll typically find them in nursing homes and extended care facilities, hospitals and physician offices. They work under the direction of an RN or physician.
  • CNA (certified nursing assistant): A CNA, also called a nurse’s aide or patient care assistant, works directly with patients and medical staff, helping with many physical and complex tasks to ensure patients are well-cared for and safe. Most CNA certification programs take between four to 16 weeks to complete. You’ll typically find them in nursing home and long-term care facilities, rehabilitation centers, adult day care centers and hospitals.
  • CMA (certified medical assistant): CMAs work under a supervising health care provider and are cross trained to perform both clinical duties as well as administrative ones, such as arranging hospital admissions or lab work and handling bookkeeping and billing. Most CMAs work in physician offices, hospitals, outpatient clinics and other health care facilities.


The initials floating behind your health care provider’s name can be confusing, but hopefully now you have a better understanding of who they are and what they do.

There are many other roles within the health care environment (i.e., PharmD or PsyD) not mentioned here that also play an important role in your overall care. It’s important to feel confident in the care you’re receiving, so if you ever have questions about your provider’s qualifications or background, don’t be afraid to ask for understanding.

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