The Difference Between a Physician and a Doctor

Using the Terms Physician and Doctor Correctly

A Surgeon Is a Doctor and a Physician.

The terms "physician" and "doctor" are often used interchangeably.  In fact, you are more likely to hear a friend say “I’m going to the doctor’s office” rather than “I’m going to the physician’s office” in every day speech.  There is a differences between the two, and it is a rather important distinction.  

A physician is an individual who has completed an undergraduate degree, usually in a science, followed by medical school.

  In medical school, a physician earns a doctoral degree in medicine.  This is designated by MD, or doctor of medicine, or DO, doctor of Osteopathic Medicine.  These individuals then complete a residency in their area of specialty and go on to practice medicine. 

The term doctor is far more vague.  A “doctor” is anyone who has completed doctoral level education, regardless of the type of education and received their doctorate.  An individual who has a PhD in physics is just as much a doctor as a PharmD, which is a doctoral level pharmacy degree.  A person can be a doctor with a literature degree, a degree in math or any other course of study that is available at a doctorate granting college or university.  

A physician is a doctor, but a doctor isn’t always a physician.  

There are many doctors in the world who don’t know a thing about medicine.

Confused yet? The term doctor is vague enough to be confusing, especially in medicine, as it is completely possible to be a nurse with a doctorate degree.

  In this case, it would be appropriate to refer to a nurse as “Dr. Smith” even though the nurse is not a physician.  

For the sake of clarity, it is best practice to refer to individuals who are medical doctors as physicians, and to individuals with a doctorate degree as doctors.  Individuals who have achieved the highest levels of education often appreciate having that hard work acknowledged, but also understand that the distinction between physician and doctor is often a grey area.

 

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Source:

Frequently Asked Questions.  The American Medical Association.  Accessed December, 2015.  http://www.ama-assn.org/ama/pub/education-careers/becoming-physician/frequently-asked-questions.page?

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