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Understanding Healthcare Credentials

The healthcare employment sector is heavily dependent on professional credentials. To present yourself as competent, it is imperative that you understand credentials.

Credentials are a set of standards establishing that a person or institution has achieved professional recognition in a specific field of health care. Credentials Include certificates, degrees and licenses.

This is an alphabetical list of credential terminology that you need to know in the healthcare arena.


Accreditation/Accredited: Credentials that an instructional institution or program has achieved.  Without current accreditation, education obtained from the institution or program could be worthless.

Board-certified: Said of a practitioner, e.g. a physician, who has completed intensive specialty training, possibly lasting several years, and has also passed competency examinations (“the boards”) in that specialty.  An indication of specialized, advanced training.

Certificate: The credential granted after a relatively narrow, short time-frame course of study. Not to be confused with a degree or a license.  Example: Certified Nursing Assistants (CNAs) have completed a basic patient care program lasting one semester or less, even prior to high school graduation. CNAs perform everyday assistive tasks for patients, under the supervision of nurses.

Continuing (Medical) Education: “Refresher” courses that healthcare professionals must complete periodically in order to remain licensed to practice.

Degree: The credential granted after a relatively broad, long time-frame course of study at an accredited institution of higher education (college or university). Not to be confused with a certificate or a license.

Undergraduate Degree: A higher education academic degree earned by an accredited course of study that comes after completion of high school.

Associate’s Degree: Typically, earned from a 2-year course of study at an accredited institution of higher education that may involve primarily general education or may involve a more specialized course of study.

Bachelor’s Degree: Typically, earned from a 4-year course of study at an accredited institution of higher education that involves general education plus one (or more) majors in a specialty area and possibly one (or more) minors in a different specialty area. There are several sorts of bachelor’s degrees, including Bachelor of Arts (BA), Bachelor of Science (BS), Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN), Bachelor of Social Work (BSW), etc.

Graduate Degree: An academic degree earned after the completion of a bachelor’s degree, from a course of study at an accredited institution of higher education.  Includes Master's and Doctoral degrees.

Master’s Degree: A graduate degree typically earned from a 2-year course of graduate study in a specialty area. May involve coursework, a research project, and/or clinical training. In healthcare, the Master of Science (MS) or Master of Business Administration (MBA) are the most common types.

Doctoral Degree: A graduate degree typically earned from a 4-year course of graduate study in a specialty area.  A prior Master's degree may, or may not, shorten the time-frame of a Doctoral degree. The Doctoral degree may involve coursework, a research project, and/or clinical training. There are many healthcare doctoral degrees, including Medical Doctor (MD), Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO), Doctor of Optometry (OD), Doctor of Podiatry (DP), Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT), Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM), Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS), Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD), and so on.

Degree Creep: The historical process by which a healthcare profession’s degree requirement to practice “creeps” up through the degrees outlined above.  Example: Physical Therapist: in the early 1990s, this was a bachelor’s degree career; by the mid-2000s, it was a doctoral degree career. Example: Radiologic Technologist: in the early 2010s, this was a certificate career; in 2015, an associate’s degree becomes mandatory; and professionals project that it will creep to a bachelor’s degree in the foreseeable future.

License: Permission from a competent authority (usually a "state board") to practice as a medical professional. Practice without a license is illegal. Usually granted on the basis of education and examination rather than performance. Usually permanent, but a periodic fee, demonstration of competence or continuing education may be required. May be revoked for incompetence, criminal acts or other reasons.

Post-Doctoral: Literally, “after the doctorate degree”. May consist of coursework, research and/or clinical training that may be voluntary or required to obtain a license and/or board certification and/or employment.  For clinical caregivers, post-doctoral work is often termed a "residency".

Residency: Formal post-graduate on-the-job training required for board certification in a medical specialty. Physicians always do residencies after medical school graduation, but veterinarians, physician assistants, and other healthcare professionals can, too.

Specialty: An area of healthcare that targets one sort of disease (e.g. oncology, for cancer), one sort of treatment (e.g. surgery), or one body system (e.g. cardiology). Earned by a residency of 1-7 years, followed by board certification. Not having a specialty makes one a “general practitioner” or “GP."

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Last updated on 8/8/2013.  Direct concerns about this page to

by linnm37 — last modified Aug 08, 2013 11:08 AM