Health Encyclopedia

Who's Who in Health Care

When you have a health problem, a doctor, nurse, or other health care provider may care for you, depending on your condition. The following list of health care professionals can help you understand the wide array of people called upon to render care. All providers of care should wear name tags that identify their role. You have the right to ask about the person's background if you are unclear about his or her role. This list is presented in alphabetical order.

Chiropractors practice a drug-free, hands-on approach to health care that includes diagnosis, and treatment of musculoskeletal problems using spinal manipulation and other techniques. Chiropractors have broad diagnostic skills and recommend therapeutic and rehabilitative exercises, as well as to provide nutritional, dietary, and lifestyle counseling. Chiropractors typically have an undergraduate degree followed by a 4-year Doctor of Chiropractic (DC) degree. Chiropractors must also be licensed by the state in which they practice.

Doctors of Medicine (MDs) have an undergraduate degree then complete four years of medical education at an accredited medical school.  This is followed by  a 3-7 year long residency program of supervised practice. Doctor's may go on to  complete a fellowship of 1-3 years for more specialized training. Doctors are licensed to practice medicine after successfully completing a state licensing examination.

Emergency medical technicians (EMTs) complete a formal training program and require licensing by the state in which they provide care. EMTs provide immediate care in emergencies within offices, hospitals, emergency rooms, and emergency response teams.

Home health aides provide personal-care services and assistance with the activities of daily living such as getting dressed, preparing meals and light housekeeping. In some states, home health aides may be able to give medicine or check vital signs, but only under the direction of a nurse or other healthcare professional. Home health aides are not required to have specialized training.

Licensed practical nurses (LPNs) provide hands-on nursing care under the supervision of doctors or registered nurses. In some states, these nurses are known as licensed vocational nurses, or LVNs. LPNs must complete a state-approved training program, pass an exam and become licensed.

Medical assistants (MA) work in a doctor's office and do scheduling, prepare patients for exams, do some office procedures or tests, handle phone calls, and serve as a liaison between the health care provider and others. They may receive on the job training or other training.

Medical records personnel keep patients' records complete, accurate, up-to-date, and confidential. Medical records technicians may need training on diagnostic and other coding systems and may require certification.

Medical technologists perform laboratory tests to help doctors diagnose diseases, and determine their extent and possible causes. Medical or Lab technologists typically require a bachelor's or associate's degree and may need to be licensed or registered.

Nurse practitioners (NPs) are registered nurses with advanced degrees and training in diagnosis and treatment of illness. NPs may prescribe medications, administer physical exams, and counsel patients on how to stay healthy.

Nurse midwives, certified nurse-midwives, and certified midwives provide obstetrical and gynecological care. They offer prenatal and post-pregnancy care, attend births and care for women's gynecological needs throughout their lives. Nurse-midwives have RNs and training in midwifery. Other levels of midwife include certified professional midwife and certified midwife.

Nurses' aides, orderlies and attendants assist nurses in hospitals, nursing homes, and other settings. They typically need a high school diploma and may also need to pass a competency exam.

Occupational therapists (OT) work with disabled patients to help them adapt to their disabilities -- perhaps by relearning skills needed for daily activities or modifying the physical environment. OTs must have a master's degree and be licensed by the state in which they will practice.

Opticians are specialists in filling prescriptions for eyeglasses and contact lenses. Many states require opticians to be licensed. Opticians usually have a high school diploma and on-the-job training.

Ophthalmologists are doctors (MD or DO) who specialize in eye care and vision. They can prescribe glasses and contacts we well as treat eye disease and perform eye surgery. Ophthalmologists have a bachelor's degree, attend four years of medical school, complete a one year internship and three years of residency.

Optometrists (ODs) are doctors of optometry. Optometrists are licensed by the states, and may prescribe medications, low vision rehabilitation, vision therapy, spectacle lenses, contact lenses, and perform certain surgical procedures. Optometrists have an undergraduate degree plus complete a 4-year Doctor of Optometry degree.

Orthotists and prosthetists prepare and fit braces and artificial limbs. They need a master's degree in orthotics and prosthetics and certification.  Orthotists and prosthetists  also complete a 1-year residency.

Osteopathic doctors (DOs) are doctors of osteopathic medicine, who are fully qualified physicians, licensed to prescribe medication and perform surgery.

Paramedics provide care in emergencies. They complete a formal training program and require state licensure.

Pharmacists are licensed to ensure that patients are given the correct medications at the time they are needed. They have a Doctor of Pharmacy (Pharm.D) which is a 4-year graduate degree. They also must be licensed.

Physical therapists (PT) provide services that help prevent loss of function and help restore function for those with certain medical conditions or restrictions. They require a doctoral degree in physical therapy and state licensure.

Physician assistants (PA) perform physical examinations, counsel patients and prescribe certain medications under a doctor's supervision. Most PAs have an undergraduate degree and complete an accredited PA program often taking 2 years of full time study. They also require state licensure.

Psychologists are trained in the study of human behavior. They provide mental health counseling and testing and do individual and group therapy. Psychologists are not medical doctors (MDs), and may not prescribe medications. They typically have a master's degree or doctoral degree in psychology. They also require state licensure.

Radiologic technicians (RT)  prepare patients for X-rays and take and develop these diagnostic photographs. RTs typically require an associate's degree and require state licensure.

Registered dietitians (RD) are licensed to apply dietary principles to help people maintain their health or treat diseases. Dietitians have at least a bachelor's degree and have undergone supervised training. Many states require licensure.

Registered nurses (RN) can help patients in the promotion, maintenance, and restoration of health. RNs typically have a bachelor's degree or an associate's degree. They must also have a national license. Because of their broad clinical and educational skills, RNs may also be found in management, financial, and administrative roles. A person must have an RN before they can move into any advanced nursing specialty area.

Respiratory therapists treat breathing disorders, perform diagnostic breathing tests, and assist in postoperative rehabilitation. Respiratory therapists usually have an associate's or a bachelor's degree. They also require state licensure.

Social workers help patients with finances, insurance, discharge plans, housing and other social and family problems arising out of illness or disability. Social workers typically require at least a bachelor's degree and often a master's degree. They must be licensed.

Speech pathologists and audiologists measure hearing ability and treat verbal-communication disorders. They typically need a master's degree and must be licensed in most states.

Surgical technicians are members of the surgical team who work closely with surgeons, anesthesiologists, registered nurses and other surgical personnel during and after surgery. They help prepare equipment and maintain a sterile environment. Surgical techs typically require postsecondary education such as completion of an accredited program in surgical technology.



Medical Reviewers:

  • newMentor board-certified, academically affiliated clinician
  • Sather, Rita, RN