Even though we use the terms interchangeably, there are subtle differences between Doctors and Physicians. In this article, we'll breakdown exactly what those differences are.
The western world often uses the terms “doctor” and “physician” interchangeably. After all, it is understood that when we use one word or the other, we are not distinguishing the difference between doctor and physician, but instead we are talking about an individual who has been through medical school and can provide medical care and treatment, make diagnoses, and prescribe medication.
This is the common assumption of what the term doctor means, however a doctor is not limited to practicing medicine.
In the world of higher education and professional training, the difference between physician and doctor comes down to wholistic definitions. A doctor can be anyone who has received the right training and credentials to earn the title.
There are many people who can be addressed as doctor but do not practice medicine and do not have the qualifications to do so. The nuances between the terms doctor and physician come down to common connotation, and while we will continue to understand one term when we mean another, it is interesting to learn more.
When exploring the difference between a doctor and a physician, the formal definition of a doctor is anyone who has earned some sort of doctoral degree.
A doctoral degree is the highest degree anyone can earn, although doctoral degrees are not available for any profession or any field. There are many types of Doctorate Degrees available in the United States, and among those include the Juris Doctor (JD) law degree. Additionally, there are Doctors of Philosophy, Doctors of Medical Sciences, and Doctors of Education. More Doctorate Degrees also include:
This is only a small sample of degrees that technically consider their candidates doctors. When these individuals earn their doctoral degree, they have earned the title, “Doctor” and can therefore choose to be called as such. For example, when Mayim Bialik, otherwise known as Amy from The Big Bang Theory, earned a Doctor of Neuroscience degree, she earned the title Dr. Mayim Bialik.
According to the most recent census, about 2 percent of Americans hold some form of doctoral degree. If you include professional degrees, since a JD and Doctor of Medical Dentistry are technically considered professional degrees, then the number increases to only 3 percent.
Of course, another difference between physician and doctor is their history. The first Doctorate Degree was awarded in Paris, France in the 12th century. Similar to today, these degrees were limited to highly educated individuals who wished to pursue advanced research in their field. However, the only available Doctorate Degrees back then were in theology, law, and medicine.
The difference between doctor and physician doesn’t extend to the amount of education required for the degree. Anyone who wishes to obtain some form of Doctorate Degree must first be awarded a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university or college. Although it is not necessary to earn a Master’s Degree before qualifying for a Doctorate Degree, many people prefer to complete a Master’s Degree first.
A Master’s Degree helps many aspiring doctors determine if graduate school is a good fit for them and helps them decide if they are taking the right path in their higher education. Furthermore, going to graduate school for a Master’s Degree serves as great preparation for the hard work and long hours of study Doctorate Degrees require.
When you have the previous experience working in such a regimented role that studying for a Master's Degree provides, it can be easier to stick with the study habits that are needed to be successful.
On average, earning a Doctorate takes about 8 years of study to complete. This because many doctoral candidates are able to or choose to go to school part-time.
There are some exceptions, though. A big difference between physician and doctor education is that those earning a medical degree cannot work while completing their degree, and many medical schools do not even offer part-time programs because of the time-consuming coursework.
Finally, there are two routes individuals can take when pursuing a Doctorate Degree: research-oriented and application-oriented (professional).
As mentioned above, degrees such as a Juris Doctor or a Doctor of Pharmacy are considered professional Doctorate degrees. Research-oriented degrees include Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) or Doctor of Education (EdD). As the names imply, research-driven degrees involve intense research and articulation while application-oriented degrees focus on skills needed to practice in the field.
A big difference between physician and doctor is that a physician only refers to an individual who has earned a medical Doctorate Degree and is certified to diagnose patients, provide them with care and treatment for illnesses and injuries, and prescribe necessary medication.
Since the sole purpose of a medical degree is to practice medicine, physicians are highly trained in their field. Furthermore, aside from general practitioners, many physicians specialize in a specific area of medicine.
Therefore, anyone who has earned a medical degree, such as a cardiologist or obstetrician, is considered a physician. Other types of physicians include:
Physician specializations are vast and intensive. This is because specialized physicians focus on one aspect or function of the body. For example, you can see a specialized physician specifically for foot problems, digestive issues, or even for plastic surgery.
This specialization for each physician ensures that you receive the most efficient and effective care possible.
Since the difference between physician and doctor comes down to a formal definition, it is important to know that there are less physicians in the United States than there are doctors. The most recent census of 2013 estimates that there are about one million licensed physicians in the United States. This number includes about 148,000 inactive and 44,000 unclassified physicians.
Another big difference between doctor and physician is that physicians have been around much longer than any other type of doctor. Historians believe medical doctors have existed in some capacity for about 25,000 years.
Of course, they didn’t receive the sort of in-depth education physicians receive today. In their earliest beginnings, physicians were simply known as “healers” and learned as much as they good about the body through practice and observation. The practice and observation was commonly referred to as an apprenticeship.
Healers have made a profound difference on our understanding of the human body, and physicians are learned individuals who continue to teach us more about the way the human body works.
Regardless of their specialization, all physicians must complete medical training. There are two different medical degrees physicians can obtain before qualifying to practice medicine: A Medical Degree (MD), and a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO).
For more information on how a Medical Doctor and Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine differ, take a look at our in-depth guide on the differences between the two: What's The Difference Between a MD and a DO?
The difference between doctor and physician does not extend too much into undergraduate careers. Just like any other Doctorate degree, an individual must be awarded a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university before qualifying for medical school.
Typically, those wishing to earn a medical degree receive bachelor’s in biology, another type of life science, or choose a pre-medical path since medical schools require certain classes be successfully completed before applying. These include anatomy and physiology, chemistry (both organic and inorganic), biology, and physics.
Additionally, medical school candidates must pass the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) to qualify for medical school. Different medical schools may have different requirements on acceptable scores, however. It is important to note that medical schools are highly competitive, so the better grade-point average (GPA) you have paired with a high MCAT score, the better chances you have of getting accepted.
Medical school typically lasts for four years. At the end of medical school, everyone who was awarded an MD or DO must apply for and then successfully complete a residency program. Residency programs are usually completed at hospitals rather than private practices, and they allow aspiring physicians to gain experience in a specialization.
The residency program can take anywhere from 3 to 6 years. After a residency, qualified candidates take board exams and, upon passing, receive a license to practice. The board exams for MD holders, also known as the U.S. Medical Licensing Exam, comes in three parts. Those who were awarded a DO must pass the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination to receive licensure. Both types of physicians must periodically renew their licenses to continue practicing.
Simply put, the main difference between doctor and physician is that not all doctors are physicians, but all physicians are doctors. Of course, it is more complex than that.
The education training required to become a Physician differs greatly from other Doctorate programs since medical degrees also require successful completion of a residency and passing of board exams. Physicians not only need a Doctorate Degree to practice, they must also be licensed in their field.
Doctors overall have many different paths available to them, depending on their field and area of study. Professional Doctorates will most likely need additional certifications to practice in their field. For example, those who have earned a JD need to pass state BAR exams in order to practice law in their state. However, research-oriented Doctorate degrees may not require any additional licensure to enter the field.
Doctors of all kinds, whether medical doctors, veterinary doctors, or doctors of philosophy, have accomplished the highest realms of education and training available. Physicians have dedicated almost a decade to their education in medicine and have fulfilled countless hours of training through residency programs. Although the difference between doctor and physician comes down to formal terminology, a doctor’s experience and expertise may differ greatly from a physician’s.