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Healthcare credential comparison

There are many acronyms and abbreviations used by modern healthcare practitioners. These titles and differentiating descriptions can be confusing to many, especially when trying to understand legitimacy and credibility. We have broken down the differences of the many common abbreviations by training, experience, and what you can expect from seeing each type of practitioner. The following list will describe the differences of medical degrees and titles.

MD, Medical Doctor

Medical doctors are perhaps one of the most famous medical degrees in the US. These physicians are trained in primary care and internal medicine before further specializing into other areas of medicine. This type of doctor falls under the allopathic branch of medicine. An undergraduate degree with necessary prerequisite coursework is required to apply for a program. The 4-year accredited training to receive an MD comes before taking licensing board exams and 3+ years of medical residency where doctors choose to start focusing on a specific specialty. They may even choose additional 1 to 2 year training in a fellowship. These additional steps allow MDs to add additional credentials and letters behind their name indicating fellowship or training status such as FACS for a Fellow of American College of Surgeons, or specific fellowships such as FACOG for obstetricians and gynecologists.

DO, Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine

Those who train in osteopathic schools of medicine are awarded a doctorate very similar to an MD. Osteopathic medicine “provides all of the benefits of modern medicine including prescription drugs, surgery, and the use of technology to diagnose disease and evaluate injury.” An undergraduate degree with necessary prerequisite coursework is required to apply for a program. This medicine style also diagnoses and treats using osteopathic manual manipulation and focuses on disease prevention. Both osteopathic and allopathic physicians study biologic and basic science curriculum first, then clinical applications before passing board exams. Both degrees can apply for the same residency programs, scope of care, and hospital privileges.

DC, Doctor of Chiropractic Medicine

Chiropractic doctors learn a “systems-based, whole-person approach to health and wellness” by focusing on the connection between physical structure, biologic function and mental well-being. They attend medical school for 3-4 years to learn basic sciences and clinical applications, with a large focus on hands-on application of spinal manipulation skills during school. They are not required to complete a residency program after their doctorate program but pass both written and clinical board exams before licensure. 

ND, Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine

Naturopathic doctors are “trained as primary care providers who diagnose, treat and manage patients with acute and chronic conditions, while addressing disease and dysfunction of the body, mind and spirit.” Naturopathic physicians focus on wellness, disease prevention, and root causes for diseases and health conditions. An undergraduate degree with necessary prerequisite coursework is required to apply for a program. Their medical training includes basic sciences and clinical applications similar to MD and DO education, with added emphasis on nutrition, herbal medicine, and mind-body therapies. NDs attend a 4-year accredited medical program before passing state licensing board exams. Many NDs also pursue residencies in primary care but are limited by availability of programs. Currently, 39 states have licensure or pending licensure status that allows for benefits like insurance coverage. Some states such as Arizona also designate this license as “NMD” in their legislation.

PT, Doctor of Physical Therapy

Physical therapists also earn a doctorate degree from an accredited program. An undergraduate degree with necessary prerequisite coursework is required to apply for a program. A doctorate in physical therapy usually takes 3 years and is also followed by a licensing examination board exam. After this, graduates may choose to pursue a residency program or fellowship to further their education and can become board-certified in specialties. 

APRN, Advanced Practice Registered Nurse

Licensed registered nurses can choose to further specialize and pursue a master’s or doctorate degree in nursing to become a APRN. There are four types of APRNs: nurse practitioner (NP), nurse midwife (CNM), nurse anesthetist (CRNA), and clinical nurse specialist (CNS). Different states have different names for NPs including advanced registered nurse practitioner (ARNP), certified registered nurse practitioner (CRNP), certified nurse practitioner (CNP), licensed nurse practitioner (LNP), and nurse practitioner certified (NPC). This additional training allows masters or doctorates of nurse practitioners to be autonomous providers to treat, manage and prevent disease. Many states grant nurse practitioners fully independent scope of practice and prescriptive rights. Many specialize by patient populations such as pediatric or women’s health specialty providers. 

PharmD, Doctor of Pharmacy

A doctor of pharmacy is a 3 to 4 year professional degree program that requires graduates to sit for a national licensing examination to practice. An undergraduate degree with necessary prerequisite coursework is required to apply for a program. Pharmacist education focuses on chemistry, pharmacognosy, and pharmacology. They are also trained in dispensing and counseling patients. Pharmacists can pursue further education and specialize with residency and fellowship programs.

PA, Physician Assistant

Physician assistants attend a 2 to 3 year master’s degree program in “broad, generalist medical education.” PAs diagnose illness, develop and manage treatment plans for their patients. They learn to assist doctors, surgeons, and other medical providers with a variety of tasks related to patient care and treatment. They must pass a licensing board exam.

RD, Registered Dietitian

The original nutritionists, registered dietitians first earn a bachelor degree in dietetics before completing a 6 to 12 month dietetic internship. Their education focuses on nutrition sciences.  A registered dietitian, also called a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) uses evidenced based research to guide recommendations. RDs pass a dietetic registration exam and then gain licensure in their state. Some applicants choose a master’s degree in dietetics before pursuing their license, notated by MS in their credentials. In fact, by 2024, a master’s degree will be required to sit for the exam. An LD behind an RD’s title means licensed dietitian, which means legally licensed to practice in some states.

CCN, Clinical Nutrition Certification

Individuals with this credential hold a bachelor of science degree in addition to a master’s in nutrition or an advanced professional degree in a licensed healthcare field. They sit for a CCN certification exam.

CN, Certified Nutritionist

This title means different things to different state licencing departments. This title requires a 4 year bachelor degree in clinical nutrition or a master’s in human nutrition. They are permitted to work in private practice but not hospitals.

CNS, Certified Nutrition Specialist 

One must hold a master’s degree or doctorate in the field of nutrition or a doctorate in healthcare in addition to 1,000 preceptorship hours in order to sit for a certification exam.


Nutritionists as a stand-alone term are not licensed, and the word means different things to different people. Some states require one to hold other degrees in order to call oneself a nutritionist, such as a master’s of science in nutrition. 

NTP, Nutritional Therapy Practitioner

This certificate is not a degree or a license and can be achieved in 10 months online. Those with the certificate claim to be more educated about alternative dietary therapies such as FODMAP, GAPS or AIP. No state yet recognizes this certification as a title or license. 

RN, Registered Nurse

Registered nurses can take a few education paths. A 2 to 3 year RN diploma without a degree can be sufficient before taking licensing exams, earning an associate degree in 2 to 3 years (ADN), or some choose to finish a bachelor degree in 4 years (BSN) before pursuing their nursing licensing examinations.

LAc, Licensed Acupuncturist

These practitioners have completed at least 3,000 hours of master’s level education in a 3 to 4 year program that includes clinical education. These practitioners learn more than just needling; they learn Chinese medicine theory, basics of Chinese herbal medicine, some massage, and food therapy. Some will have a master’s of science degree specifically in Oriental Medicine, and this is denoted as MSOM.

LMT, Licensed Massage Therapist

A massage therapist does not need a bachelor’s degree before completing practical hours, just a certificate or diploma degree. LMTs must complete the state-designated requirement of practical hours through a school or internship before passing a licensing exam. A registered massage therapist (RMT) is a designation used in Canada, with more basic science and clinical hours required to achieve.

MA, Medical Assistant

Medical assistants need to complete a 2 year associate degree program in medical assistance before passing a licensing examination. MAs can do basic medical tasks such as start a patient intake, administer certain medication injections, and manage medical office administration tasks.