Board-Certified Surgeons

What does "board-certified surgeon" mean?

If you are interested in having cosmetic surgery and are searching for the best doctor, you are going to run into a lot of confusing terms. Words and phrases like board-certified surgeons, board-certified doctors, board-certified physicians, plastic surgeons, cosmetic surgeons and a few others will get bandied about until your head reels. How do you know you are dealing with someone qualified to perform your cosmetic surgery?

The best way to ensure you are dealing with a physician or surgeon who is qualified is to find out if he or she is board certified.

First, let's clear up the distinctions between a doctor, a physician and a surgeon. A doctor is anyone who holds a doctoral degree in any subject. One may be a doctor of psychology or archaeology or English literature. Medical doctors have the letters MD after their name and doctors of osteopathy have DO after their name. (Doctors of osteopathy do everything that medical doctors do, but osteopathy has a more holistic philosophy than does medicine.) A doctor of dentistry has DDS or DMD after his or her name.

A physician is someone who has earned an MD or DO degree and is licensed to practice medicine. In the United States, each state has a governmental board that oversees the licensing of physicians and surgeons.

A surgeon is a physician who specializes in surgery. (A bit of trivia: Surgery and medicine were once quite separate, with barbers and others once performing some types of surgery. In the United Kingdom, surgeons choose to be addressed as "Mister" or "Miss" rather than "Doctor" in recognition of this old difference. However, British surgeons do hold doctoral degrees.)

Any physician with a medical or osteopathic degree can practice any kind of medicine in the state in which he or she is licensed. A physician can take a weekend course in a cosmetic procedure and start performing it immediately, but this does not mean he or she has the training or knowledge that comes with extensive experience and education.

This is where board certification comes in.

There are many recognized medical specialties. These vary from specialties that deal with patient age (pediatrics) to those dealing with an area of the body (urology) or an area of medicine (family medicine or emergency medicine). A board-certified surgeon or physician is someone who has been evaluated and certified by the governing boards of their medical specialty as having the training and education required to evaluate and treat diseases and conditions or perform medical procedures within that specialty.

There are also certifications for some subspecialties. For example, a physician who is board-certified in internal medicine (who is called an internist, by the way, not an intern), can also earn certification in nephrology (kidney conditions) or infectious disease, among other subspecialties.

There are several boards that certify plastic and cosmetic surgeons. These include the American Board of Plastic Surgery, the American Board of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, the American Board of Cosmetic Surgery, and the American Board of Surgery.

When it comes to plastic and cosmetic surgery, several areas of medicine overlap. For example, plastic surgery is both a specialty on its own and a subspecialty within otolaryngology. A board-certified otolaryngologist (ear, nose, and throat specialist) can have a certification in plastic surgery within the head and neck, which is also a subspecialty of general plastic surgery. If you want cosmetic surgery on your eyelids, you can trust your care to a board-certified surgeon or a board-certified ophthalmologist (medical eye doctor). Board-certified plastic surgeons or dermatologists would be good choices for cosmetic procedures to the skin. To add even further confusion, facial plastic surgery can also be performed by a board-certified maxillofacial surgeon. Maxillofacial surgery is a subspecialty of dentistry.

This means that a very broad base of board-certified surgeons specializing in different areas of medicine can practice as plastic and cosmetic surgeons

Why use a board-certified surgeon for cosmetic plastic surgery procedures?

To earn board certification, a physician or surgeon must go through years of residency and practice in their specialty. To give one example, a surgeon certified by the American Board of Plastic Surgery (ABPS) has met the following requirements:

  • Earned a degree from an accredited medical school
  • Completed 3 years of general surgery
  • Completed 2 to 3 years of supervised residency in plastic surgery
  • Has at least 2 years of professional practice
  • Has passed rigorous written and oral exams

Other medical specialty boards have slightly different requirements, and some require prior certification by another specialty board.

A surgeon or physician may be certified by more than one medical board. For example, a cosmetic surgeon may be certified by the American Board of Plastic Surgery and by the American Board of Otolaryngology.

Bear in mind that a physician or surgeon may be board certified, but not in a specialty that deals with plastic, reconstructive or cosmetic surgery. A board-certified internist may not be the best choice for a face lift, just as a board-certified plastic surgeon might not be the best choice for performing heart surgery. However, doctors occasionally change specialties. A cardiologist, who decides she prefers doing cosmetic surgery, may become certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine and the American Board of Plastic Surgery.

What to Look For While Choosing Plastic Surgeon

Make sure that the physician with whom you consult about the procedure you want is board certified and has experience performing that procedure. When you walk into a physician's office, don't just glance at the diplomas and certificates on the wall. Read them. Ask questions about the doctor's background and experience performing the procedure you want. Ask how often he or she performs the procedure you want.

Another good clue that you are dealing with a qualified medical professional is to ask at which hospitals he or she is on staff or has admitting privileges. Not having any admitting privileges to local hospitals is not a good sign.

As noted previously, any licensed physician can perform any medical or surgical procedure, but that does not mean that he or she should.

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