Types of Doctors

Perhaps you did not realize it, but there are many different doctoral-level health professional degree options in the United States. On this page you’ll find information on the eleven most common types of degrees, links to learn more about each of them.

  • “MD” are the initials that usually come to people’s mind when they think of a medical doctor. Indeed, they stand for Medicinae Doctor – Latin for “Teacher of Medicine”. While the first medical schools date back to the medieval Islamic world (beginning in Baghdad, Iraq), the first actual “M.D.” wasn’t awarded in North America until the late 1700s. (Various other titles were used before then.)

    In the US today, the 134 MD-granting medical schools are regulated and accredited by the Liaison Committee on Medical Education, an independent academic body sponsored by the American Medical Association and Association of American Medical Colleges. Graduates of these programs go on to work in every specialty of medicine.

    The term “allopathic medicine” was actually created by a homeopathic doctor in the 1800’s as a pejorative term for “conventional medicine”. Today it is often used as a term to compare MD (Allopathic) programs with DO (Osteopathic) programs. Regardless of the nomenclature, MD medicine has a rich and diverse history in the United States and, to date, still constitutes the majority of doctors in the country. For more information, see the websites of the American Medical Association or Association of American Medical Colleges.

  • Osteopathic medicine was founded by an American physician named Andrew Still in 1874. His concern was that many medical programs at the time didn’t have a holistic enough approach to practicing medicine, and that many medications being prescribed were useless or even harmful. So he began the school of osteopathic medicine. Today, there are 27 accredited osteopathic medical schools in the US, whose graduates receive the title of “DO” (Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine).

    Over 135 years later, DO physicians study and work in every field of medicine – right alongside their MD counterparts. While the differences in training have been fiercely debated over the years, today there are few actual distinctions. One major difference is that DO physicians learn and use a technique known as OMM, or Osteopathic Manipulative Medicine.

    DO schools are thought to take a holistic approach not only to the medicine they teach, but to their applicants. (Historically, they often tend to place more importance on experience and motivation that some traditional, MD programs.) Regardless, MD and DO students tend to score nearly identically on their national STEP exams, compete for the same residency positions, work side by side in the medical field and earn comparable salaries.

    Students looking at medical schools are encouraged to consider them on an individual basis – regardless of whether they grant an MD or DO degree. For more information, check out the AOA’s webpage, talk to the Pre-Health advisor and try to find MD or DO physicians in your area that you can meet with!

  • Veterinary Medicine is concerned the treatment and care of all types of animals. They care for pets, livestock and animals in various other settings (zoos, research laboratories, etc.). In addition to working directly with pets, many also conduct research. Some also contribute to human health as well, by working with physicians and researchers to find ways to better prevent and treat various human-animal health problems.

    There are 28 colleges in the US with recognized programs in Veterinary Medicine. Accreditation comes from the ruling national body, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). With the fields growing popularity, prestige and salary, gaining acceptence to veterinary school in the US has become more difficult in recent years. Only one in three applicants was accepted in 2007, for example.

    The University of Rhode Island offers a “Pre-Vet Studies” track within the Fisheries, Animal and Veterinary Sciences Program.  For more information also see this Veterinary Medicine description (on the US Bureau of Labor Statistics’ webpage) and the homepage of the AVMA.

  • Chiropractic physicians work with musculoskeletal health problems, and how they can negatively affect the nervous system and a patient’s overall health and well-being. Chiropractors use natural, non-surgical treatments and also counseling in healthy living.

    Chiropractors in the US are not allowed to prescribe medication. Instead they rely on a variety of other tools such as manual adjustment (usually of the spine), heat/water/light therapy, massage, braces/straps, etc. In some cases chiropractic is used to supplement traditional methods (medications prescribed by a physician, etc.). Other times chiropractic is the primary method of treatment, such as with chronic lower back pain.

    There are 16 recognized chiropractic programs in the US – all accredited and regulated by the Council on Chiropractic Education. To learn more about this field, check out the website for the American Chiropractic Association.

  • Dentistry is the field of oral health, comprised of health professionals who provide a range of oral health care instrumental in general public health maintenance and quality of life. Dentists also detect and treat for oral cancer and systemic conditions originating in the mouth. Dentists are the forefront of a research field that comprises developments in dental implants, computer generated imaging, and cosmetic and aesthetic procedures.

    Becoming a dentist requires four years in dental school after college to attain either a degree of Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) or Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD), depending on the school. Despite perpetual confusion over the name difference in these degrees, the training each entails is very much the same. To be licensed, dentists must pass certain state tests as well.

    It is recommended that students apply to dental school at least one year in advance, and taking the DAT (Dental Admissions Test) is required. While many dental schools don’t post their acceptance rate, recent statistics have pegged the national acceptance rate at 42.5%, and each year applications to dental school are on the rise.

    For more information on dentistry and the dental admissions process, see the American Dental Education Association (ADEA) Official Guide to Dental Schools.

  • Podiatric Medicine deals with the study of human movement, concentrated on medical care of the foot and ankle. Doctors of podiatric medicine can specialize in such areas as surgery, sports medicine, biomechanics, geriatrics, pediatrics, orthopedics, and primary care. Podiatric physicians are in higher demand than ever, as disorders of the foot and ankle are among the most prevalent and neglected health issues.

    For more information, see the website for the American Association of Colleges of Podiatric Medicine (AACPM).

  • An optometrist is a health care professional licensed to provide care of the eye and vision. This includes examining and diagnosing eye diseases, treating visual conditions, and prescribing vision correction procedures. An optometrist is a doctor of optometry, or O.D. (not to be confused with an ophthalmologist, an M.D. specializing in eye care).

    There are 19 accredited optometry schools in the U.S. and Canada that grant the four-year degree of O.D. All applicants must take the Optometry Admission Test (OAT). Admission to optometry school is competitive; in 2007 about one-third of all applicants were accepted.

    For more information, see the American Optometric Association website aoa.org. A spreadsheet of course requirements specific to optometry schools may be found here.

  • Physical therapists (PTs) are licensed to practice methods to improve mobility, aid in pain relief, restore function, and prevent disabilities for patients with injuries or disease. They use such physical methods as massage, exercise, and hot/cold therapy to manage and diagnose various injuries/disabilities and diseases. The Doctorate of Physical Therapy (DPT) is a three-year degree; there are over 200 accredited physical therapist graduate programs in the U.S.

    Although many physical therapy graduate programs do not require a specific undergraduate major, coursework in biology, chemistry and physics is required and as such many pre-PTs choose majors in the biological sciences and kinesiology. Kinesiology is a major designed to prepare students for careers in the broad fields of health, physical education, and exercise science.

    Depending on your undergraduate major and the sequence of courses you complete, you may be able to the Early Continent Physical Therapy Option at URI. This accelerated program enables exceptional students to earn both their bachelor’s degree in Kinesiology or Biology and a DPT in six years rather than the usual seven. For more information on this, and the physical therapy department at URI, check out their website.

    For more information on Physical Therapy educational programs, see the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) website.

  • Nurse practitioners are registered nurses that have received additional clinical training and advanced education qualifying them to take health histories, perform physical exams, diagnose various health problems, guide patients in preventive care and provide referrals to other health professionals.

    Nurse practitioners receive a masters (MS) or doctoral-level degree (DNP). Recent trends have indicated that nurse practitioners are increasingly in demand.

    An excellent source about careers in nursing is: DiscoverNursing.com.  For more information on nurse practitioners, see the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners website.

  • In the field of complementary and alternative medicine, naturopathic doctors practice a form of medicine that combines centuries-old, natural, non-toxic therapy techniques with modern advances in human health. Naturopathic medicine is used to treat many areas of family health, and stresses prevention and self-care of the whole patient. Graduates of accredited naturopathic medical schools can practice medicine in fifteen states and the District of Columbia once meeting state licensing requirements. Certain professional board exams must be passed in order for NDs to practice as primary care physicians.

    For more information on naturopathic doctors, see the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians website.

  • Pharmacists are doctoral-degree holding healthcare professionals.

    Pharmacists have the responsibility for assuring appropriate use of medications. As medication experts they are responsible for insuring that the information provided by a prescriber is complete, that the new medication and dose are appropriate for the patient’s condition, and that the patient understands the proper way to take the medication. (from the URI Pharm.D. program web page, https://web.uri.edu/pharmacy/academics/pharmd/)

    To learn more about the pharmacy program at URI, see its website at https://web.uri.edu/pharmacy/ or read about their admission requirements.

  • Physician assistants provide healthcare services under the supervision of physicians; they are trained to provide an array of diagnostic and therapeutic procedures, and can take medical histories, examine and treat patients, order lab tests and X-rays, and can prescribe medicine in all 50 states and DC. Though PAs work under the supervision of a physician, in some areas-such as rural or urban clinics-they may be the principal healthcare provider in the community. The average PA program takes 26.5 months to complete.

    Pre-Admission Clinical Experience

    Clinical Experience that includes direct patient care is required. In order to be competitive, an applicant should have a minimum of six months full-time healthcare employment or 1,000 hours of hands-on patient care experience.

    A critical component of a competitive PA school applicant is prior clinical experience in the health care field, which includes direct patient care. This is highly recommended, and even required by some schools- hours of minimum expected prior experience range from the hundreds to thousands.

    What Are the Prerequisites for Entering a PA Program?

    (taken from the American Academy of Physicians Assistants website)

    Programs offering baccalaureate degrees require a minimum two years of college credits, and virtually all require health care experience prior to admission.

    Programs offering master’s degrees require appropriate undergraduate credits with a minimum GPA and virtually all require previous health care experience. Suggested studies prior to applying to a PA program include:

    • Anatomy
    • Biological Sciences
    • Chemistry
    • College Math
    • Computer Sciences
    • English
    • Humanities/Psychology
    • Medical Terminology
    • Nutrition
    • Organic Chemistry
    • Physiology
    • Social Science
    • Statistics

    *You should contact the programs for complete details of prerequisites.

    For more information, see the American Academy of Physician Assistants website. For more information on deciding between medical school and PA school, see this recent article from the U.S. News and World Report.

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