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Alphabet soup: What do all those letters after your health care provider’s name mean?

Have you ever looked at your doctor’s or nurse’s business card and been staggered by all the letters after their name? Those aren’t just there to give typesetters headaches; each group of initials indicates a particular degree or professional designation. In this article, we decode many of the common acronyms, abbreviations, and collections of letters you’ll see, at least in Canada.

Doctors

Although “MD” is almost synonymous with “doctor” in North America, not every doctor actually has an MD degree, and some have many other degrees and designations as well. Depending where your doctor trained and what his or her specialty is, you’ll see some of these letters:

  • MD: Medicinae Doctor, meaning “Doctor of Medicine.” In North America, this is an undergraduate medical degree; most doctors also have a bachelor’s degree. In some countries, though, the MD is an advanced research degree.
  • MBBS, BMBS, BM BChir, MBChB, MB BCh BAO, or some other variation: Medicinae Baccalaureus, Baccalaureus Chirurgiae, meaning “Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery.” In Britain, Ireland, and many other countries, this is the equivalent to the North American MD degree.
  • MDCM: Medicinae Doctor et Chirurgiae Magister, meaning “Doctor of Medicine and Master of Surgery.” The undergraduate medical degree given by McGill University. It’s a long story.
  • CCFP: This indicates that a doctor is certified in family medicine by the College of Family Physicians of Canada. Doctors who have been certified for at least 10 years and have shown their commitment to ongoing professional development are entitled to become Fellows of the College of Family Physicians (FCFP).
  • FRCPC or FRCSC: “Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Canada” or “Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of Canada.” This indicates that a doctor is certified in a particular medical or surgical specialty. Many other Commonwealth countries have similar designations; you may also see designations such as “MRCS” (Member of the Royal College of Surgeons) to indicate different qualification levels.
  • FAAP: “Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics.” This means that a doctor is board certified in paediatrics.

Seeing a pattern? “F” after a name usually indicates the holder has completed advanced training and is a “Fellow of” one of various colleges, academies, and societies. Don’t confuse this with the other type of medical or surgical fellow, a licensed doctor who has finished his or her residency and is training to become a subspecialist, such as a paediatric cardiologist.

Nurses

Once upon a time, it was common for nurses to have little or no formal education. Not any more! Today, nurses must have at least a diploma and usually a bachelor’s degree in nursing. Many nurses have advanced degrees and designations as well. Here are a few.

  • RN: “Registered Nurse.” In Canada, nursing is a regulated profession. An RN designation means a nurse is licensed and registered to practice by a provincial or territorial regulatory body. It also means the nurse continues to learn and maintain competence.
  • BN, BScN, or BNSc: “Bachelor of Nursing” or “Bachelor of Nursing Science,” an undergraduate nursing degree.
  • MN, MScN, or MNSc: “Master of Nursing” or “Master of Nursing Science,” a graduate degree in nursing which usually includes a research program.
  • APN or NP: “Advanced Practice Nurse” or “Nurse Practitioner.” All APNs have a Master's degree or higher and have completed special nurse practitioner courses. Those who have written and passed an additional exam are called nurse practitioners (NPs). APN/NPs have specialized knowledge in certain areas or populations that enables them to provide medical and holistic care to patients.
  • ACNP: “Acute Care Nurse Practitioner.” A nurse practitioner with a master’s degree from a recognized acute care program. ACNPs typically provide specialized nursing care to patients in acute care hospitals.
  • CNS: “Clinical Nurse Specialist.” This is a registered nurse with advanced knowledge in a specialized area of clinical practice.
  • CNCCP(C): “Certified Nurse in Critical Care Pediatrics (Canada).” This designation, or one like it, indicates that a nurse has passed an exam and been certified in an area of specialization. This credential must be renewed every five years. There are 19 specialties in total, including cardiovascular nursing (CCN(C)), emergency nursing (ENC(C)), neuroscience nursing (CNN(C)), perinatal nursing (PNC(C)), and psychiatric and mental health nursing (CPMHN(C)).

Regulated health professions

Most health professions in Canada are regulated, which means that only people who meet certain criteria have the right to call themselves, for example, a social worker or a dietitian. Often, these designations are indicated with an “R” for “registered.” Here are some of them:

  • MRT: “Medical Radiation Technologist.” A medical radiation technologist is a health professional who uses X-rays or other forms of radiation to produce diagnostic images or treat certain medical conditions. A medical radiation technologist’s designation will also indicate his or her specialty: (R) for Radiography, (T) for Radiation Therapy, (N) for Nuclear Medicine, or (MR) for Magnetic Resonance.
  • OT Reg: “Registered Occupational Therapist.” Occupational therapists help people learn or re-learn how to do everyday activities, including dressing and eating.
  • RD: “Registered Dietitian.” Dietitians are specialists in healthy eating and nutrition. Their work is focused on preventing and treating illness through dietary modification.
  • RPh: “Registered Pharmacist.” Pharmacists have expertise in preparing and administering medication. They confirm the type of drug a doctor has ordered and the dose. They also check whether the patient has any allergies, and ensure that a drug won't interact with any other drugs a patient may be taking.
  • RRT: “Registered Respiratory Therapist.” This is a health professional with special training in helping patients with breathing disorders.
  • RSW: “Registered Social Worker.” Social workers help people cope with non-medical problems. They can provide counselling and help people access resources in the community.

Other designations

If you are a new parent who needs breastfeeding help, you may work with an RLC (Registered Lactation Consultant) or IBCLC (International Board Certified Lactation Consultant). Lactation consultants are experts in breastfeeding and infant feeding.

If your child has a chronic illness, you may work with a CDE (Certified Diabetes Educator) or a CAE (Certified Asthma Educator). These are health professionals who have completed special training in a particular disease and who partner with patients and their families to teach self-management and help gain control of the disease.

Advanced degrees

Health care providers who are interested in health promotion or public health may obtain a degree such as an MHSc (Master of Health Sciences) or MPH (Master of Public Health). Others may get degrees in information technology, education, engineering, business administration, or one of many other disciplines. Health care providers who are especially interested in research may get a PhD (Doctor of Philosophy), an advanced degree that usually takes at least three years to complete.

One group of health providers who must have a PhD is clinical psychologists, who also have the designation “CPsych.” Their education focuses on normal and abnormal behaviour and ways of treating abnormal behaviour. They do not have the right to prescribe medication.

Pharmacists who are interested in teaching or research may obtain a PharmD (Doctor of Pharmacy), an advanced pharmacy degree. Just to confuse the issue, some universities also offer an entry-level PharmD (ELPD) degree which is the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree.

Of course, there are many other degrees and designations as well. Next time you see your health care provider, if they have time to chat, ask about some of those letters on their business card. You might learn they have hidden depths!

For more information, see our page on Health Care Professionals. If your doctor is a specialist, you can look them up in the Directory of Fellows on the Royal College’s website at rcpsc.medical.org.

Robin Marwick
Managing Editor, AboutKidsHealth

6/10/2011




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