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The Meaning of Board Certification

I.        An Overview of Certification.

The certification process is designed to assure the public that a certified medical specialist has successfully completed an approved educational program and an evaluation, including an examination process designed to assess the knowledge, experience and skills requisite to the provision of high quality patient care in that specialty.

The American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS) is the umbrella organization for 24 approved specialty certifying boards. To be certified as a specialist by one of these recognized boards, a physician must complete certain requirements. The requirements for each specialty are determined by the specialty board, but the requirements generally include:

  1. Completion of a course of study leading to the M.D. or D.O. (Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine) degree from a recognized school of medicine or school of osteopathic medicine.
  2. Completion of required training in an accredited residency program designed to train specialists in the discipline.
  3. Many specialty boards require assessments and documentation of individual performance from the residency training director, or from the chief of service in the hospital where the specialist has practiced.
  4. All ABMS Member Boards require that a person seeking certification have an unrestricted license to practice medicine in order to take the certification examination.
  5. Each candidate for certification must pass examinations given by the specialty board. Candidates who have passed the exams and other requirements are then given the status of “Diplomate” and are certified as specialists. A similar process is followed for specialists who want to become subspecialists.

II.       Time Limits on Certification

Certification is an indication that the specialist has completed an approved medical education program and an evaluation, including an examination designed to assess the knowledge, experience and skills necessary to provide high quality care in that specialty at the time the certificate is awarded. 

When the process of certification was begun, diplomates were awarded certificates that were not time-limited, and therefore did not have to be renewed. In recognition of the pace of change in medical knowledge, certificates awarded more recently are time-limited, and are valid for six to ten years, at which point the diplomate must become “recertified” through a process of continuing education in the specialty, review of credentials and further examination. Diplomates whose certificates were not time-limited when they were awarded are not required to undergo this recertification process to continue being listed as a certified specialist. 

Dermatologists certified from 1932 to 1990 hold lifetime certificates and are not required to participate in Maintenance of Certification. However, they can voluntarily enter and participate in Maintenance of Certification at any time. Dermatologists certified in 1991 and since, have 10-year certificates and are automatically entered into Maintenance of Certification.

Certification indicates that the specialty board determined, based on the criteria then in effect, that the diplomate possessed the education, training, experience and knowledge required to be a specialist at the time the certificate was awarded. It cannot assess a physician’s knowledge, skills and experience after the certificate is awarded. To give continuity to this process the specialty boards have recently initiated a program called “Maintenance of Certification™ This program is designed to assist diplomates to maintain their knowledge and skills through continuing education and documented experience during the period between examinations. 

III.      The Limits of Certification

Many qualities are necessary to be a competent physician, and many of these qualities cannot be quantified or measured. Thus, board certification is not a warranty that a physician is “competent.”

Additionally, each specialty board seeks to determine whether its diplomates possess the knowledge, experience and skills necessary to act as a specialist within its own specialty. Many physicians are capable of treating conditions and performing procedures that are not within the scope of the specialty in which they are certified. However, ABMS Member Boards do not make any assessment of whether a physician has the knowledge, experience and skills needed to treat conditions and perform procedures that are not within the scope of the specialty for which it offers certification. For a description of the types of conditions and procedures that fall within each specialty, see “Which Medical Specialist for You,” which is available on the ABMS website, or visit the website of the Member Board.

For further information concerning the requirements for certification, recertification and maintenance of certification for a particular specialty, you should check with the specific ABMS Member Board or check the website of the Member Board. A link to the website of each ABMS Member Board can be found at http://www.abms.org/About_ABMS/member_boards.aspx. If you need more information concerning the status of a physician’s certification, please contact the Member Board for the physician’s specialty.