NP, PA, RN, DO? When you make an appointment with your primary care provider
it’s likely you’ll come in contact with a variety of healthcare
professionals who’ll have a combination of letters like this on
their badge, which, let’s be honest, can start to feel like alphabet soup.
These letters represent a person’s credentials or specific certification.
Having persons trained in specific areas ensures that each staff member
is something of an expert in his or her area. No matter what credential
or combination of credentials you may encounter during your visit, it’s
important to know they all have one common goal – helping you, the patient.
Here’s your guide to who’s who in your doctor’s office:
Medical Doctor (MD or DO): Your physician
In the U.S., physicians who practice medicine can hold two types of medical degrees:
Doctor of Medicine degree (MD) or
Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine
(DO). Both are fully licensed, board-certified and able to prescribe medication,
perform procedures and practice medicine independently. So what’s
the difference? Their training and perspective on patient care.
- MD’s are trained to practice a more traditional for of medicine that
focuses on the diagnoses and treatment of disease.
- DO’s are trained to have a more holistic approach to medicine that
focuses on prevention and considers a patient’s lifestyle and environment
when diagnosing and treating medical conditions rather than just treating
Physician Assistant (PA): Practices medicine with a Physician
PAs are not medical assistants, nor are they studying to become doctors –
they are licensed and certified healthcare professionals who practice
medicine in partnership with doctors and bring a breadth of knowledge
and skills to patient care. After obtaining their bachelors degree, PAs
go on to complete a specialized program that involves three academic years
with the same prerequisite courses as medical schools.
- Take your medical history
- Conduct physical exams
- Diagnose and treat illnesses
- Order and interpret tests
- Develop treatment plans
- Counsel on preventive care
- Assist in surgery
- Write prescriptions
- Make rounds in hospitals and nursing homes
Nurse Practitioner (NP): A nurse with advanced training
NPs are the most advanced nurses, who provide a full range of primary, acute
and specialty health care services to all ages. They must earn at least
a master’s or doctoral degree and have advanced clinical training
beyond their initial professional registered nurse preparation. They’re
required to also be licensed in their state and pass a national certification exam.
- Order, perform and interpret diagnostic tests like lab work and x-rays
- Diagnose and treat acute and chronic conditions such as diabetes, high
blood pressure, infections and injuries
- Prescribe medications and other treatments
- Manage patients’ overall care
- Educate patients on disease prevention and improving health/lifestyle choices.
Register Nurse (RN): A fundamental part of patient care
RN’s focus is on the patient, evaluating their condition — monitoring
vital signs and recording and reporting symptoms as well as patient progress.
They’re also patient advocates, who inform patients of their rights
and provide them with the information needed to make an informed decision.
After graduating with an associates’ or bachelor’s degree,
RN’s complete a specified amount of clinical hours required by the
state to obtain a nursing license.
- Perform physical exams
- Record health history
- Provide health promotion, counseling and education
- Administer medications, wound care and numerous other personalized interventions
- Interpret patient information and make critical decisions about needed actions
- Coordinate care, in collaboration with a wide array of healthcare professionals
Direct and supervise care delivered by other healthcare personnel like
Now is the time make an appointment with your primary care provider (PCP)
and commit to regular visits so they can look out for your health and
well-being—not just today—but also in the future. Just think
of your PCP as your first line of defense in guarding your most valuable
possession of all: your health. For more information about how a PCP can
help manage and improve overall health or to find a healthcare provider
near you, visit