Doctor Certification and Licensure Information

Sep 12, 2019

Doctors must hold a professional medical degree, such as Doctor of Medicine or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine, complete a residency, and be licensed by the state. Licensing includes meeting the education and licensing requirements, and passing an examination.

Essential Information

A doctor examines patients, diagnoses their ailments and prescribes medications or administers treatments that alleviate or cure underlying conditions. Aspiring doctors in all states must hold a professional medical degree and physician licensure. They then go on to complete residencies and fellowships in specialties like anesthesiology, general medicine, internal medicine, pediatrics and obstetrics, and gynecology in order to pursue board certification.

Required Education Doctor of Medicine or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine
Additional Training Residency and fellowship in chosen specialization
Licensure/Certification All physicians must be licensed; board certification in a specialty is common
Projected Job Growth (2018-2028) 7% (Physicians & Surgeons)*
Median Annual Compensation (2018) $200,890 (Physicians and surgeons, all other)*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Licensing Information for Doctors

All states and U.S. territories require doctors to pass the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) as a demonstration of basic competence to treat patients. Doctors must graduate from an accredited medical school to be eligible for the USMLE. Although some limit reciprocity, most states will grant a license to doctors who obtained their license in another state. Licensing is not specific to any specialty and does not establish competence to practice a specialty.

Certification Information

Certification is a voluntary process in which doctors must complete a residency in a chosen specialty, undergo evaluation by members of a certification board and pass oral and written examinations in the specialty. Residencies generally last 1-2 years.

There are two organizations that oversee certification: the American Board of Medical Specialists (ABMS) and the American Osteopathic Association (AOA). The ABMS represents 24 specialty boards and the AOA represents 18 specialty boards.

Doctors who want to practice a subspecialty have to complete another residency, undergo a board review and pass exams. Subspecialty certification is necessary if a doctor has plans to teach, conduct research or use treatment approaches restricted to that specialty.


Both the ABMS and AOA also require doctors to recertify periodically. AOA certifications are generally valid for ten years, except in family practice and in obstetrics and gynecology, which are valid for eight and six years, respectively. AOA recertification requires doctors to maintain a minimum of 120 hours of continuing medical education credits over a 3-year period, 40 of which must be in their specialty.

ABMS recertification varies by specialty, but all doctors are evaluated on their capabilities in patient care, interpersonal and communication skills, medical knowledge, professionalism, practice-based learning and systems-based practice.

All doctors must be licensed by the state in which they practice, which requires completing medical school and passing an exam. Doctors can choose to specialize in a particular aspect of medical practice by completing a residency or fellowship in that specialty and obtaining certification. Certification includes meeting education and residency requirements, passing an exam, and undergoing a board review.

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