How Do You Know if an Expert Is Really an Expert?

Having an “MD” after a name is no assurance that the person you are about to bare your soul … and your body to is necessarily an expert. Likewise, the media doc who appears on TV or is a bestselling author giving advice on everything from supplements to surgery is not necessarily the person who should be publicly doling out information. So how do you know which medical “experts” are experts.

Posted on | Lauren Streicher, MD | Comments ()

Having an “MD” after a name is no assurance that the person you are about to bare your soul … and your body to is necessarily an expert. Likewise, the media doc who appears on TV or is a bestselling author giving advice on everything from supplements to surgery is not necessarily the person who should be publicly doling out information. So how do you know which medical “experts” are experts.

Pilots have to meet certain criteria, and then maintain their currency to fly a plane. Even drivers have to take a driving test every few years to maintain the right to get behind the wheel. I wish the same could be said for medical experts, but once someone has earned the right to call themselves a doctor, they are forever allowed to represent themselves as such when they author a book, a blog or appear on TV.

Sometimes the savvy consumer has to do a little legwork to find out if a medical expert is really a medical expert. Here’s my quick guide to knowing how qualified a physician is.

Doctor

A doctor is anyone who has a doctorate level degree. If someone has "doctor" in front of their name, they might be a physician, but they might also be a dentist, podiatrist, psychologist or English professor.

MD

MD stands for Medical Doctor. Anyone who has graduated from medical school is allowed to put MD after their name. Forever.

Licensed

A licensed physician is a physician that is allowed to practice medicine. Each state has it’s own criteria, but in general, all that is required to practice medicine is proof of graduation from medical school, at least a year of clinical training and a qualifying exam. To verify that a physician is licensed, go to the Federation of State Medical board website, fsmb.org. Licensure is not the same thing as board certification and does not guarantee expertise in a specific field.


Board Certified

Board certification is the gold standard in assuring that a physician is an expert in a specialty or sub-specialty. The American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS) is the medical organization that oversees physician certification by developing standards for the evaluation and certification of physician specialists. To be board certified, a doctor must complete a residency in his specific specialty (post medical school training) that has been recognized by ABMS, followed by rigorous written and oral examinations. If some one wants to sub-specialize, they must then do fellowship training after their residency. For example, to be a board certified fertility specialist, a medical school graduate must complete a 4-year residency in Ob-Gyn, followed by a 3-year Fellowship in Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility.

If that wasn’t enough, a specialist or sub-specialist has to maintain board certification by taking medical courses and passing tests to prove that they are up to date. The criteria in each specialty is specific to the specialty … just because someone is a good surgeon does not mean they are an expert or competent in anesthesiology. ABMS.org is the site to go to check out if a physician is board certified. Don’t assume every so-called “expert” is there. Check for yourself.

University Affiliations

It’s generally a good sign if a physician has an academic appointment at a medical school. Faculty ranks such as Instructor, Assistant Professor, Associate Professor and Professor depend on their level of involvement teaching medical students, research and publications.

If a person is not board certified and has no university affiliation, does it mean he or she is a bad doctor? Of course not! Many non-board certified physicians are excellent doctors who keep up and give very good care. But, board certification is your assurance that a physician is not only current, but has specific training and expertise in a specialty.

Face it. If you needed brain surgery, would you go to the brain surgeon who was board certified, teaches at a medical school, and has demonstrated currency, or would you pick the brain surgeon who finished a residency but failed her boards, took off 5 years to be an artist, and then returned and got privileges at a hospital that was in such desperate need of a brain surgeon that they didn't require board certification? Do you trust the media doc who sees patients on a regular basis, is board certified and teaches at a medical school or the one who hasn’t seen a patient in 20 years, has no hospital affiliation, no board certification and goes online for their medical information right before they go on TV?

By now, I’m sure you get the message.

Can you be a terrific media doc and also be a “true expert”? How does someone like Dr. Oz measure up? I will save you the trouble of checking …

MD - University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine

Board Certification - American Board of Thoracic Surgery

License - New York

University Affiliation - Professor, Columbia University

Sees Actual Patients - Yes

Blog written by Lauren Streicher, MD
Dr. Lauren Streicher is an Assistant Clinical Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Northwestern University’s medical...