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:
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
Completion of required training in an accredited residency program designed to
train specialists in the discipline.
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.
All ABMS Member Boards require that a person seeking certification have an
unrestricted license to practice medicine in order to take the certification
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 specialists 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 began, 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 by
the ABPS since 1995 are time-limited, and are valid for ten years. During this
10-year period, the diplomate must demonstrate maintenance of certification
through a process of continuing education in the specialty, demonstration of
professional credentials such as hospital privileges, review and evaluation of
practice performance and further examination. Diplomates whose certificates are
not time-limited are encouraged to electively participate in the
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. To give continuity to this process, the Maintenance of
Certification Program (MOC-PS)
is designed to assist diplomates to maintain their knowledge and skills through
continuing education and documented experience during the period between
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 specialists
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
assumptions of whether a physician has the knowledge, experience and skills
needed for conditions and perform procedures that are not within the scope for
the board which offers certification in the field. For a description of the
types of conditions that fall within each specialty, see the “Guide to
Physician Specialties” from the ABMS or visit the website of the Board in
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 Boards can be found
If you need more information concerning the status of a physician’s
certification, please contact the Member Board of the physician’s specialty.