PA, NP, MD, DO, Resident, Fellow…how are these titles different?

Years ago a person wearing a white coat in a hospital or medical office was a doctor…plain and simple.  Well…this is no longer the case.  As if the healthcare system isn’t confusing enough, providers with various acronyms all wear white coats. So how do you know who is who, and what exactly do they all do?  

Lets first start with the commonly known title: doctor:

A doctor, also known as a physician, is a person that holds a medical degree after completing medical school. After medical school, most doctors also complete various amount of years of residency, where they continue to train under a seasoned doctor. The number of years of residency varies based on the specialty that they choose. In addition, they may also complete a fellowship.

MD versus DO

In many ways, MD and DO are the same. 

The MD title is given to a doctor who has completed allopathic medical school.  DO is given to a doctor who has completed an osteopathic medical school.  The main difference in the training is while MD focuses on treating specific conditions with medications;  DO training focus on whole-body healing.  In practice, these doctors work together in the same facilities, and both hold the qualifications for practicing medicine.

Resident Physician

A resident is an aspiring doctor (MD or DO) that has completed medical school and currently practicing under supervised training to gain experience in the field. The residency program varies based on the specialty. 


You may have heard a medical professional being referred to as an intern.  An intern is typically a first-year resident. An intern has successfully completed medical school and now practicing under the supervision of a physician. After the internship, the provider enters residency.


A fellowship training program is required for a physician to practice as a specialist. For example, surgical oncology. During fellowship, the “Fellow Physician” closely trains under the specialty physician.  The length of fellowship varies based on specialty. 

Physician Assistant (PA)

A Physician Assistant, sometimes also called a Physician Extender or Advanced Practice Provider. A Physician Assistant is a medical professional who has successfully graduated from a Physician Assistant Studies Program and completed board certification.  Physician Assistants hold at a minimum a masters of science degree and some also have a Doctorate or Ph.D. degree. A Physician Assistant can diagnose illnesses, develop and manage treatment plans, and prescribe medications.  They can also perform procedures and work in specialty practice areas such as surgery, emergency medicine, pediatrics, critical care medicine, and psychiatry. Physician Assistants can be a person’s primary healthcare provider.

Nurse Practitioner (NP)

A Nurse Practitioner, also known as an Advanced Practice Nurses, or APN.  A nurse practitioner is a registered nurse who has gained additional training in a specialty area.  Nurse Practitioners hold a master’s degree in nursing and board certification in their specific specialty.  Nurse practitioners can diagnose, treat, and prescribe medications.  They can be a person’s primary healthcare provider. Nurse practitioners can also hold a Doctorate of Nursing degrees. 

A Common Mission

Whether you see a healthcare provider whose badge reads MD, DO, PA, NP, fellow, intern, or resident…they all share one common goal.  The goal of these professions is to provide patients with the best possible care and quality of life.