“M.D.” vs. “Ph.D.” vs. “Dr.”: Are They Synonyms?

Quick: when you hear the word doctor, what do you picture?

Most would probably describe someone in a white lab coat with a stethoscope hanging around their neck or someone in medical scrubs—someone you would seek out if you have a deep cut that needed stitches.

That word doctor, however, is a title assigned to many who don’t come close to that description, many of whom you wouldn’t want stitching up that cut. Take your English professor, for instance. No offense, Dr. Barrett. 

It can all be a bit confusing, which is why it’s important to know who and why someone might be called a doctor, as well as what all those initials and abbreviations after their name mean. Here we break it all down.

What does Dr. mean?

Let’s start with doctor or Dr. for short. While the first definition of the word is “a person licensed to practice medicine,” that doesn’t mean you want to take medical advice from anyone who calls themselves a doctor. There are many looser definitions of the word that follow and, frankly, make things a bit confusing.

For example, the third definition is older slang for a “cook, as at a camp or on a ship,” while the seventh entry is “an eminent scholar and teacher.” Bugs Bunny didn’t help matters either by plying anyone and everyone with his famous greeting,“What’s up, doc?” 

The term doctor can be traced back to the late 1200s, and it stems from a Latin word meaning “to teach.” It wasn’t used to describe a licensed medical practitioner until about 1400, and it wasn’t used as such with regularity until the late 1600s. It replaced the former word used for medical doctors—leech, which is now considered archaic. 

WATCH: When Did The Word "Doctor" Become Medical?

Physician vs. doctor: are these synonyms?

While the term physician is a synonym for doctor, it’s typically used to refer to those who practice general medicine rather than those who perform surgery, aka surgeons

A quack, on the other hand, is defined as “a fraudulent or ignorant pretender to medical skill.”

What does M.D. mean?

Moving on to initials that carry more weight than a nod from Bugs, let’s look at M.D.s.

M.D., which can be used with or without the periods (M.D. or MD)  is the designation for a medical doctor. This is earned by attending medical school (typically a four-year program after completing at least one undergraduate degree, plus a residency program), and learning to diagnose patients’ symptoms and offer treatment. 

The initials M and D stem from the Latin title Medicīnae Doctor. There are many different types of doctors, with different specialties, but if you have a physical ailment, visiting a doctor with the initials M.D. is a good place to start.

Specialty doctors may add even more initials to their title, such as DCN (doctor of clinical nutrition), DDS (doctor of dental surgery), or countless others they acquire with additional training. To make things even more confusing, some may add abbreviations from medical associations they belong to, such as FAAEM (Fellow of the American Academy of Emergency Medicine). 

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What does Ph.D. mean?

As for Ph.D., this stands for “doctor of philosophy.” It stems from the Latin term Philosophiae Doctor.

You can get a Ph.D. in any number of subjects, from anthropology to mythological studies. It’s not an easy feat, however, as to earn one, you must do original research and write a dissertation

Ph.D. vs. M.D.: are these synonyms?

There are two big differences between Ph.D.s and M.D.s. When it comes to medicine, M.D.s can prescribe medications, and Ph.D.s can’t. And yes, it’s possible to be both an M.D. and a Ph.D. In fact, some med schools offer programs in which you can achieve both simultaneously. 

You can also get a professional doctorate degree in a number of fields. For example, you might receive a doctorate of education, an Ed.D

So, in a nutshell, both M.D.s and Ph.Ds can be referred to as doctors. If you’re looking for someone to treat what ails you physically, then you want at least an M.D. following their name. If you want to dig deep into a subject and get advice from someone who has done their own research and who likely knows the latest and greatest developments in a particular area, then you’re probably looking for a Ph.D. And if someone has both, even better—depending on your needs, it may be just what the doctor ordered.

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