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The Meaning of Board Certification

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:

  1. Completion of a course of study leading to the M.D. or D.O. (Doctor of Osteopathy) degree from a recognized school of medicine or school of osteopathy.
  2. Completion of required training in an accredited residency program designed to train specialists in the discipline.
  3. 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.
  4. All ABMS Member Boards require that a person seeking certification have an unrestricted license to practice medicine in order to take the certification examination.
  5. 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 specialist 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 was begun, 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 more recently are time-limited, and are valid for six to ten years, at which point the diplomate must become recertified through a process of continuing education in the specialty, review of credentials and further examination. Diplomates whose certificates were not time-limited when they were awarded are not required to undergo this recertification process to continue being listed as a certified specialist. 

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. It cannot assess a physician knowledge, skills and experience after the certificate is awarded. To give continuity to this process the specialty boards have recently initiated a program called Maintenance of Certification This program is designed to assist diplomates to maintain their knowledge and skills through continuing education and documented experience during the period between examinations. 

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 a specialist 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 assessment of whether a physician has the knowledge, experience and skills needed to treat conditions and perform procedures that are not within the scope of the specialty for which it offers certification. For a description of the types of conditions and procedures that fall within each specialty, see Which Medical Specialist for You, which is available on the ABMS website, or visit the website of the Member Board.

            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 Board can be found at If you need more information concerning the status of a physician certification, please contact the Member Board for the physician specialty. 


The American Board of Dermatology (ABD), located in Detroit, Michigan, is a separate and autonomous body that acts as the certifying agency for the specialty of dermatology. The ABD also works with the Residency Review Committee for Dermatology in the accreditation of dermatology residency training programs.

The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), located in Schaumburg, Illinois, is the largest national professional society for the specialty of dermatology. Its purposes are to educate dermatologists and the public, and to represent the specialty on issues concerning other professional organizations, the public, industry, and the government. Membership in the AAD is not limited to Board certified dermatologists, but includes other dermatologists, other physicians and health care providers from all over the world who have an interest in the field of dermatology.

The differences between certifying Boards and professional Societies are discussed by Harry J. Hurley, M.D. in an article entitled, "Boards Evaluate, Societies Educate." (Arch Dermatology 2000;136:54-56)


The American Board of Dermatology provides written verification of Board status for a fee of $35. Send a check or money order (payable to the American Board of Dermatology), signed release from the physician in question, and the address to whom the verification should be sent, to:


American Board of Dermatology
Henry Ford Health System
1 Ford Place
Detroit, MI 48202-3450


The ABD also accepts payment by credit card (VISA or MasterCard only). Send credit card number, expiration date, and name as it appears on the card to the address above.

If you do not require written verification, the American Board of Medical Specialties provides Web listings and verbal verification of Board certification. You may call 1-866-ASK-ABMS (275-2267) to receive verbal verification.


Prior to 2003, the American Board of Dermatology did not use certificate numbers. Dermatologists certified before 2003 who are completing forms for hospitals, government agencies, etc. should answer questions relating to a certificate number as "Not Applicable".

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