Medical specialty certification in the United States is a voluntary process. While medical licensure sets the minimum competency requirements to diagnose and treat patients, it is not specialty specific. Board certification—and the Gold Star—demonstrate a physician’s exceptional expertise in a particular specialty and/or subspecialty of medical practice.

The Gold Star signals a board certified physician’s commitment and expertise in consistently achieving superior clinical outcomes in a responsive, patient-focused setting. Patients, physicians, healthcare providers, insurers and quality organizations look for the Gold Star as the best measure of a physician’s knowledge, experience and skills to provide quality healthcare within a given specialty.

About the Certification Process.

Certification by an ABMS Member Board involves a rigorous process of testing and peer evaluation that is designed and administered by specialists in the specific area of medicine. Learn more about how a physician becomes board certified.

At one time, physicians were awarded certificates that were not time-limited and therefore did not have to be renewed. Later, a program of periodic recertification (every six to 10 years) was initiated to ensure physicians engaged in continuing education and examination to keep current in their specialty.

However, in 2006, ABMS’ 24 Member Boards adopted a new gold standard for re-certification with a continuous ABMS Maintenance of Certification (MOC) program for all specialties. MOC uses evidence-based guidelines and national standards and best practices in combination with customized continuing education so physicians demonstrate their leadership in the national movement for healthcare quality. MOC also requires proof of continuing education and experience in between testing for re-certification.

Understanding the Certification Process

Certification by an ABMS Member Board is widely recognized by physicians, healthcare institutions, insurers and patients as determining criteria that a physician has the knowledge, experience and skills to provide quality specialty healthcare. It is considered the gold standard because of its unique physician-led approach for assessing qualifications.

Each ABMS Member Board sets standards for their medical specialty. There are also baseline requirements that must be met before a physician is allowed to sit for a board examination:

  • Completion of the required pre-doctoral medical education
  • Completion of required training in an accredited residency program
  • Assessment and documentation of individual performance from the residency training director or the chief of service in the hospital where the specialist practices
  • A license to practice medicine in an institution or an unrestricted license

The process for initial certification involves a rigorous process of testing and peer evaluation designed and administered by specialists in the field. Successful candidates are awarded certification.

Before becoming certified, some physicians refer to themselves as being "board eligible," "board admissible" or "board qualified" to indicate their status in the certification process. Unfortunately, some candidates use these terms year after year while making no progress toward completing their certification. As a result, patients, administrators, credentialers and other caregivers are falsely led to believe that a physician is further along in the certification process than is really the case. ABMS has disavowed the use of these terms and recommends checking with the particular Member Board to determine a physician's certification status.

Regarding subspecialties, there is no requirement that a specialty-certified physician also holds certification in a subspecialty of that field in order to be considered qualified to practice in that subspecialty. Under no circumstances should this physician be considered unqualified to practice within the subspecialty solely because of lack of subspecialty certification.

Subspecialty certification is important to physicians preparing for careers in teaching, research or practice specifically in that field. Such special certification is recognition of exceptional expertise and experience and does not justify a differential fee schedule or confer other professional advantages over non-certified physicians.

ABMS Maintenance of Certification
When the process of certification was begun, physicians were awarded lifetime certificates that did not have to be renewed. In recognition of the pace of change in medical knowledge, a periodic program of re-certification (every six to ten years) was established including continuing education, credential review and further examination. This ABMS Maintenance of Certification® program was created as the new gold standard. MOC requires proof of continuing education and experience between original certifi cation and testing for re-certification. Learn more about MOC on this Web site.

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