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Difference Between Doctor and Physician

Difference Between Doctor and Physician

Many use the terms interchangeably, but there are differences between doctors and physicians. In this article, we’ll break down exactly what those differences are.

A doctor has earned a doctoral degree, whereas a physician is someone who has been through medical school and can provide medical care and treatment, make diagnoses, and prescribe medication.


What is a Doctor?

A doctor is anyone who has earned a doctorate. A doctoral degree is the highest degree anyone can achieve, although doctoral degrees are not available for every profession or field. There are many types of doctorate degrees available in the United States, including Doctors of Philosophy, Doctors of Medical Sciences, Doctors of Education, and the Juris Doctor Law Degree. Other doctoral degrees include but are not limited to: 

  • Doctor of Engineering
  • Doctor of Fine Arts
  • Doctor of Public Administration
  • Doctor of Public Health
  • Doctor of Theology
  • Doctor of Medical Dentistry
  • Doctor of Veterinary Medicine

When these individuals earn their doctorate, they have earned the title of Doctor. So, for example, when Mayim Bialik, otherwise known as Amy from The Big Bang Theory, earned her Doctor of Neuroscience degree, she became Dr. Mayim Bialik.

According to the 2019 census, 4.5 million people in the United States hold a doctoral degree, while fewer than one million physicians.


Education Requirements to Become a Doctor

The amount of education required to become a doctor and physician is similar. Anyone who wishes to get a doctorate must first obtain a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university. Many people earn their master’s degree before qualifying for a doctoral program, but it is not required.

Many people earn their master’s degree because it helps them decide if they want to continue on their educational journey. It also serves as excellent preparation for earning a doctorate; study habits and long hours can help you to be successful down the road.

Earning a doctorate takes, on average, eight years to complete. Many doctoral candidates can or choose to go to school part-time while still making a paycheck at a full or part-time job or as a graduate assistant or lecturer. This is only true for those earning a doctorate in a field other than medicine; physicians cannot work while completing their degree, and many medical schools do not offer part-time programs because of the time-consuming coursework.

When pursuing a doctorate, there are two routes one can take: research-oriented and application-oriented (professional). Research-oriented degrees include Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) or Doctor of Education (EdD), whereas application-oriented programs include Juris Doctor or Doctor of Pharmacy. Research-driven degrees involve research and articulation, while application-oriented degrees focus on skills needed to practice in the field.


What is a Physician?

A Physician, or physician meaning, is a person who has earned a medical doctorate and is certified to diagnose patients, provide them with care and treatment, and prescribe any necessary medication.

Physician specializations are vast and intensive because specialized physicians focus on one aspect, area, or function of the body. For example, you can see a physician who specializes in foot problems (podiatrists), digestive issues (gastroenterologists), and even plastic surgery (plastic surgeons). Each physician's level of education and experience ensures that patients receive the highest level of care and efficiency.

While you must earn a medical doctorate to be considered a physician, one can focus on many routes and specialties, such as obstetrics, cardiology, and neurology. Other types of physicians include but are not limited to:


Physician Meaning and Definition? has three different variants or meanings (nouns) to define the word Physician:

  1. One who is legally qualified to practice medicine, thus referred to as a Doctor of Medicine.
  2. One who is engaged in general medical practice, as opposed to one practicing or specializing in surgery.
  3. One that's skilled in the art of healing. 

A known expression is a Physician of the Soul, which seems to be more like defining a Physician as a spiritual healer.  However, regardless of the meaning of the term or word, there are stringent skills needed and tough educational requirements to become a certified and practicing Physician.


Education Requirements to Become a Physician

Regardless of their specialization, all physicians must complete medical training. There are two types of medical degrees physicians can earn before qualifying to practice medicine: Medical Doctor (MD) and Osteopathic Medicine (DO). Take a look at the differences between the two here: [link to updated blog]

Like any other doctoral degree, an individual must be awarded a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university before applying to medical school. However, most people do not pursue a master’s degree before applying for medical school. Typically, those hoping to earn a medical degree receive a bachelor’s degree in biology or another life science or choose a pre-medical path. These include anatomy and physiology, chemistry, biology, and physics.

Medical school candidates must pass the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) to qualify for medical school. Medical schools are highly competitive, so the better GPA and MCAT score, the better your chances of getting accepted. It’s important to note that different medical schools have other requirements, acceptable MCAT scores, and GPAs.

Medical school typically lasts for four years. At the end of medical school, everyone who received a DO or MD must apply for a residency program. Residency programs are usually completed at hospitals rather than private practices to allow aspiring physicians to gain real-life training and knowledge in their preferred specialties. Each residency program differs based on the specialty chosen and can last from three to six years.

After residency, qualified candidates take board exams and, upon passing, receive a license to practice medicine. MDs must pass the United States Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE), and DOs must pass the Comprehensive Medical Licensing Exam (COMLEX). In addition, MDs and DOs must periodically renew their licenses to continue practicing.



As mentioned, there are differences between doctors and physicians. Physicians have gone through the necessary steps and schooling to diagnose patients, care for and treat them, and prescribe any necessary medications. At the same time, doctors are anyone who has received a doctorate in their field of practice. The easiest way to put it is that all physicians are doctors, but not all doctors are physicians.

The education between the two is vastly different, as physicians must complete residency training, pass board exams, and obtain a license in their field, on top of receiving their doctorate.

Professional doctorates generally need additional certifications to practice in their field. For example, those who have earned a Juris Doctorate must pass their state BAR exam to practice law. However, those who have research-oriented degrees generally do not require additional licensure or certifications to practice in their field.

Doctors of all kinds, including medical doctors (physicians), veterinary doctors, Doctor of Philosophy, and Doctor of Education, have accomplished the highest realms of education and training available in their field. While different, both doctors and physicians have immense knowledge and have achieved the highest levels of education and practice in their respective fields.

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