The Meaning of Health Professional Acronyms

Thoughtful male doctor sitting at desk in hospital
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You've read an article online and the author makes some claims that you wonder about. Something doesn't sound quite right. But the article was written by someone with the prefix "Dr." in front of their name, so it must be true, right?

What Exactly Does "Dr." Mean?

The use of the title "Dr." means that the person has completed an advanced degree program. While it often refers to an M.D. or a Ph.D., it can legitimately be used by many others. Generally, three to four years are required beyond a bachelor's degree, and an internship or residency may be required.

Doctoral Degrees

Here are some of the U.S. and Canadian doctoral degrees:

M.D.: Medical Doctor. Psychiatrists are usually M.D.s, although some are D.O.s. See below.

Ph.D.: Doctor of Philosophy. This is the traditional academic doctorate. A Ph.D. is qualified to teach at a college or university. Psychologists often have this degree. In psychology, a Ph.D. can be in clinical psychology, with a focus on research and practice, counseling psychology, with a focus on practice in less pathological populations, school psychology, although many school psychologists do not get a doctorate, or just psychology, which many experimental and social psychologists at colleges have. You can also get a Ph.D. in social work, nursing, and even things like English, mathematics, and philosophy.

Psy.D.: Doctor of Psychology. This is a clinical psychology degree that places more emphasis on practice than research. Psy.D. programs developed to train practitioners who would keep up with research but might never do much research themselves.

D.O.: Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine. Osteopathic physicians generally get the same residency training as M.D. physicians. Their medical schools include additional training in physical manipulation techniques somewhat similar to chiropractic.

D.D.S.: Doctor of Dental Surgery. A dentist.

D.S.W.: Doctor of Social Work. An advanced social work degree often held by educators in social work.

Ed.D.: Doctor of Education. Many schools of education confer this degree. A recipient can be a psychologist, an educational administrator or someone in another education-related field.

DC: Doctor of Chiropractic. A chiropractor.

D.Min.: Doctor of Ministry. A minister, possibly a doctoral-level pastoral counselor, but not always. Th.D. or D.Div. are also used.

J.D.: Doctor of Jurisprudence. An attorney. Some mental health professionals also have law degrees.

What If It's Just "Doctor"?

If you read an article which is written by a "doctor," and the author does not specify what type of doctor they are, then be skeptical. One prominent example is the popular "Doctor Laura" on the radio. She is not a psychologist nor a psychiatrist. Her doctorate, in fact, is in physiology and she is licensed as an M.F.C.C. This does not mean that she can't give helpful advice, it means that her doctorate is not in psychiatry or psychology. Be careful out there!

Master's Degrees

A master's degree involves a shorter training program, often around two years past the undergraduate bachelor's degree. Relevant degrees include:

M.S.W.: Master in Social Work. This is the traditional degree for social workers.

L.C.S.W.: A person has passed the licensing exam that comes after the degree. It allows for more independent practice.

M.Ed.: Master in Education. Many counselors have this degree or a similar one, M.S.Ed. is given by schools of education in almost any field of education. Many states also license counselors as L.P.C.,  Licensed Professional Counselor.

M.S. or M.A.: Master of Science or Master of Arts. These are the traditional degrees given by colleges of arts and sciences. A psychologist generally needs a doctorate to be licensed. Some Canadian provinces licensed psychologists with a master's degree. A few U.S. states are also beginning to do this.

Ed.S.: Educational Specialist. This is a degree that involves more training than a master's degree and less than a doctorate. Some school psychologists have this degree, as do some counselors.

M.Div.: Master of Divinity. Another degree that ministers can get, some of whom are pastoral counselors.


Other initials stand for certifications in certain areas. A certification is similar to a license, but with a more limited scope of practice.

Some common certifications are:

CSAC: Certified Substance Abuse Counselor. This is someone with extra training in substance abuse. They generally have at least a bachelor's degree, the basic four-year college degree. In most states, they cannot practice independently.

CAC: Certified Alcoholism Counselor. Similar to a CSAC, but with an emphasis on alcohol.

Board Certifications

Physicians generally pass specialty boards to become board-certified in certain specialties.

A.B.P.P: American Board of Professional Psychology. Psychologists can also become board-certified, but this is an extra credential that many psychologists do not get. The American Board of Professional Psychology allows psychologists who pass their test to use these initials.

F.A.C.P.: is a Fellow of the American College of Physicians

B.C.F.E.: American Board of Forensic Examiners. 

By Leonard Holmes, PhD
Leonard Holmes, PhD, is a pioneer of the online therapy field and a clinical psychologist specializing in chronic pain and anxiety.