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Board Certification: What It Means and Why You Should Care


By Amy Kennard

The majority of people seeking a physician, no matter for what reason, assume that the man or woman they select is qualified to practice medicine. But what exactly does that mean?

In order to practice medicine in the United States, physicians must be licensed in the state in which they work. In order to become licensed, they must have attended medical school, performed a postgraduate residency, and passed an exam.

However, most physicians today are considered specialists, even if the specialty is something that seems general such as family practice. Because of the increase in specialization, board certification was developed to set practice standards and to ensure that doctors were well qualified to provide care in their chosen specialty.

What is board certification?

According to the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS), board-certified physicians voluntarily meet additional stringent standards beyond basic licensing. It’s a four-part process that focuses on life-long learning by physicians in the specialty they choose. The four parts include: licensure and professional standing; lifelong learning and self-assessment; cognitive expertise; and practice performance assessment. To maintain board certification, a physician must remain active in the latest advances in his or her specialty and demonstrate best practices for patient safety, communications, and ethics. Board certification is independent of the government and does not change from state to state.

What does board certification mean to me?
Board certification is one way to protect you — the patient. People may not realize that most states, including Illinois, do not have any laws that prevent doctors from practicing outside of their field. In addition, anyone who has a medical license can call themselves a surgeon — even with no formal training in surgery. Plastic surgery is one specialty that has recently had a lot of media coverage with reports of damaged facial muscles, botched surgeries, unnecessary complications, and even deaths from procedures being performed by physicians who do not have the proper training. While these examples may be extreme, even seemingly simple procedures such as Botox can have disastrous results when done by a physician that perhaps only took a weekend training class.

There are currently 24 ABMS board certificates, which also include many subspecialty certificates. For example, the American Board of Internal Medicine includes 19 subspecialties, ranging from cardiology to oncology to sports medicine. The number of Board subspecialties will continue to increase due to the ever-evolving advancements in medicine.

One of the newer certifying boards is the independent American Board of Interventional Pain Physicians, formed in 2005. The need for pain management —either from chronic or acute pain — is on the rise. Treating chronic pain is often very complex and physicians without the extra training in this specialty are less likely to have positive results. They may even compromise patient safety by not addressing possible side effects or complications; or by using questionable treatments.

How do I find out if my physician is board-certified?

The American Board of Medical Specialties lists four ways to determine if a physician is board-certified:

  • Check online by going to and entering the name, city, state, ZIP code and specialty of the physician
  • Call the ABMS toll-free at 1-866-ASK-ABMS
  • Request a written verification of a physician’s board certification by contacting the Member Board in the doctors’ specialty at
  • Check the latest edition of The Official ABMS Directory of Board Certified Medical Specialists, available in many medical and public libraries

Just as you select a physician based on who accepts your medical plan, recommendations from friends, office location, and reputation, so must you select him or her based on their qualifications — and “MD” at the end of their name doesn’t automatically mean they’re qualified to treat you for your specific condition. Some physicians choose to not pursue board certification and this does not necessarily mean they are less qualified. So do your homework. Ask questions. Do research. Check your physician’s qualifications. A physician who is board-certified in the specialty you’re seeking is your best assurance that he or she has the knowledge, experience, and skills to provide quality health care within a given specialty.