When you visit your doctor, you may notice some framed acknowledgements of milestones in their career, like a degree or a medical license. These are qualifications all doctors need before they can begin practice. However, does that mean all physicians with the necessary credentials are the same? Most would say no, but finding a new doctor can be tricky, particularly in a specialized field like orthopedic surgery. Some patients rely on personal experience or references to identify the right doctor.

One factor that sets physicians apart is board certification. According to the American Board of Medical Specialties, board certification means a doctor’s skills are, “demonstrated throughout the physician’s career by evidence of lifelong learning and ongoing improvement of practice.”

The ABMS offers board certification following the completion of a state-mandated residency that all doctors complete in order to receive their medical license. However, some physicians opt out of taking the test, while others may fail. Regardless of the turnout, doctors can still practice in the field and some even declare themselves “board eligible,” which could be interpreted as board certified to an unassuming patient. So, why does it matter whether your doctor is board certified, board eligible or has no association with a board at all?

In order to be a board certified back surgeon, your doctor must:

  • Exhibit expertise in the field – which is proved when the physician periodically passes a written or oral exam that challenges the ethicality, judgement, professionalism, patient safety and medical knowledge of their practice.
  • Maintain the highest quality of care – Physicians are often required to conduct patient and peer surveys, study new developments in their field, and show proof of practice improvement by submitting organized data.
  • Uphold surgical standards – Board certification is especially important in finding the right surgeon. The ABMS provides board certification for subcategories, like the American Board of Orthopaedic Surgery, so you will know that your surgeon is regularly self-evaluating their performance and keeping up-to-date with the practices of other surgeons in their field.
  • Commit themselves to continuing education – by continually studying their specialized field. The ABOS and several other sub-category specialties require 120 Continuing Medical Education Credits every three years. This means your surgeon is still up to date on the most recent studies and practices related to their field. Uncertified physicians are not held to this standard and may be practicing outdated methods.

You can be assured of your doctor’s integrity if they have maintained their certification, as it must be renewed every three years to remain valid. The recertification process requires the doctor to pass either the written or the oral test again. The doctor also has to prove that all standards of practice have been upheld according to the type of certification they intend to maintain.

So, the next time you need to choose a doctor in a specialized practice, make sure you find one that goes the extra mile to become board certified. You can find a certified doctor by visiting the American Board of Medical Specialties website, which will link you to any of the specialty or subspecialty recipients (http://www.abms.org/member-boards/specialty-subspecialty-certificates).