Board Eligible and Board Certified: What’s the Difference, and Does It Matter?

Even if you can’t read the fancy diploma posted on your doctor’s exam room wall, there’s comfort in knowing an authoritative institution has conferred a lofty status on the person you trust with your health.

But as a recent post on by Dr. Christopher Johnson explains, certain terms denote different levels of medical accomplishment, and patients should know if their caregiver has the appropriate credentials to treat them.

“The terms ‘board certified’ and ‘board eligible,’ Johnson says, “are confusing to people not in the medical profession. It doesn’t help that more than a few doctors blur the distinctions to their own benefit.”

Anyone who has graduated from medical school is a physician, and is entitled to include the letters M.D. (doctor of medicine) or D.O. (doctor of osteopathic medicine) after his or her name. But those magic letters do not confer a license to practice medicine. Licenses are granted by each state only after a doctor has spent time in a residency program that provides additional training in a medical specialty (pediatrics, cardiology, internal medicine, etc.). Some specialties require longer post-graduate training than others.

On completion of residency, doctors must pass a test; if they pass, they are “board certified” in that specialty or specialties (you can be board certified in more than one field). But state licensing systems do not regulate what a doctor says about his or her specialist training. Many call themselves “specialists” because they are “board eligible.”

That status indicates a doctor has completed a residency program but hasn’t passed the test, either because he or she hasn’t taken it, or has done so and failed. Being board eligible restricts what the doctor is allowed to do in a hospital, but doesn’t prevent that person from practicing a specialty outside the hospital or from advertising services as a board eligible physician. It’s not wrong, but it can be misleading.

The American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS) monitors these distinctions and recently implemented a rule forbidding doctors to claim that they’re board eligible for their entire careers. Now, there’s a time limit to pass the certification test after finishing a residency. If someone continues to use the “eligible” term beyond that threshold, sanctions can be imposed.

To find out if your doctor is certified in a given specialty, start at the ABMS website. It provides links to each specialty’s website, which tracks physician membership. And see our post about doctors with lifetime certification who are under no obligation to take re-certification exams.

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